LAREDO, Texas – A 33-year-old man is now headed to federal prison after admitting to transporting aliens resulting in death, announced U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick.
Luis Morales-Melendez, a Guatemalan national who illegally entered the United States himself, pleaded guilty Dec. 2, 2019.
Today, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo handed him a 48-month sentence. Not a U.S. citizen, Morales-Melendez is expected to face removal proceedings following the sentence. At the hearing, the court noted that while there’s no indication Morales-Melendez intended for the death to happen, he was still responsible for their safety as they crossed the river.
“Illegally entering the U.S. is not only a crime, it can be life threatening,” said chief Matthew Hudak of Border Patrol (BP)– Laredo Sector. “The harsh terrain and conditions along the border are inherently dangerous, and are made worse by the callous and reckless actions of smugglers that put lives at risk. The heartless actions of Morales-Mendez last year needlessly cost someone their life. This case is another unfortunate reminder that no one should but their life, or the life of a family member, in the hands of a criminal organization or human smugglers.”
“The tragic loss of life in this case is an example of the very real risks people face when they put their lives in the hands of smugglers,” said Special Agent in Charge Shane Folden Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) – San Antonio. “Those responsible for illegally moving people into and through our country place personal profit ahead of public safety. Driven by greed, they have little regard for the health and well-being of their human cargo, which can be a deadly combination.”
On Aug. 22, 2019, authorities encountered 12 individuals near Zebra Creek in Laredo. The investigation determined they were all undocumented aliens who had illegally entered the country by crossing the Rio Grande river. Several identified Morales-Melendez as the guide who led them into the United States.
Another man had been a part of the group, but had died along the way. The investigation revealed the victim had been struggling in the water, but Morales-Melendez did not offer aid or use a rope to help him. Morales-Melendez denied hearing anyone call for help. While some lifejackets were available, there were not enough for everyone. The victim’s body was recovered on the Mexican side of the river the following day.
Morales-Melendez admitted to illegally entering the United States with the group and acting as the foot guide on the American side of the river. As part of his plea, Morales-Mendez acknowledged receiving a discount on his smuggling fee in exchange for acting as the foot guide once the group crossed into the United States.
BP initiated the investigation in conjunction with HSI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bukiewicz is prosecuting the case.