August 22, 2008

5 members of a S. Texas alien smuggling organization plead guilty

LAREDO, Texas - Five members of the Ortiz family alien smuggling organization, based in Bryan/College Station, Texas, pleaded guilty here Thursday to federal alien smuggling charges. U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle, Southern District of Texas, announced the pleas; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiated the investigation into the organization in January 2005.

The ICE investigation ultimately revealed a large-scale alien smuggling operation that since 1999 has transported hundreds of illegal aliens from the Mexican border to the Bryan, Texas, area.

Defendants Porfirio Ortiz, 37, Calixtro Ortiz, 52, Bernardino Ortiz, 49, and Sandra Ortiz, 32, all of Bryan; and Christopher Gene Torres, 24, of Kingsland, Texas, all pleaded guilty Aug. 21 to count one of the Indictment, charging them with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for commercial advantage or private financial gain. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 20.

On Jan. 17, 2005, a black 1990 Ford F-250 hauling a horse trailer driven by Tyler Ross Severn, 28, of Bryan, arrived at the highway 16 Border Patrol checkpoint south of Hebbronville, Texas. The inspecting border patrol agent noticed a suspicious arrangement of hay blocking his view of the front area of the trailer. The agent peered inside and observed four adults and an infant, who were later identified as illegal aliens from Mexico.

The driver told agents that Porfirio Ortiz hired him to transport illegal aliens from Rio Grande City to Hebbronville, Texas. Severn drove the truck and trailer to Rio Grande City and loaded the five aliens into the trailer. The aliens were to pay Porfirio Ortiz $2,500 each, of which Severn was to receive $300 per person. Severn was to deliver the aliens to Manuel Antonio Valles, 36, also of Bryan, in Hebbronville. After locating and arresting Valles, agents searched his vehicle and found a notarized letter, handwritten by Porfirio Ortiz. The letter requested the return of his horse trailer that had been seized in a previous alien smuggling apprehension in December 2004 in Laredo, Texas.

Severn explained that by the time he was apprehended in 2005, he had made numerous trips transporting illegal aliens for the Ortiz family. Calixtro Ortiz served as a guide for the aliens and transferred the aliens to Severn at a house in Rio Grande City. Severn then transported the aliens to Bryan, Texas, where Porfirio or Bernardino Ortiz paid him. Severn took agents to the house in Rio Grande City where they spoke with the owner, Maria Bazan, 35, of Bryan, and Calixtro Ortiz. Bazan admitted she ran the stash house in Rio Grande City and that Calixtro Ortiz paid her $30 per day per alien she housed.

Valles was convicted by Jury on June 2, 2005 and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Severn pleaded guilty March 8, 2005 and was sentenced to 12 months. Bazan also pleaded guilty March 8, 2005, but has not yet been sentenced.

In this criminal organization's typical mode of smuggling, the defendants either drove loads themselves or recruited drivers, such as Torres and Charles Salyers, 30, of College Station. They routinely transported aliens in a horse trailer with a live horse, designed to make the trip look legitimate. The aliens were then transported through one of the South Texas Border Patrol checkpoints on the way to Bryan, normally hidden in the tack room at the front of the trailers. Often, drivers transported multiple loads of aliens to Bryan in a single day. Drivers hired by the defendants revealed to investigators they had been paid as much as $70,000 each for their services.

From Bryan, Texas, the illegal aliens then traveled to their destinations throughout the United States. Family members of the smuggled aliens paid the smuggling fees by Western Union wire transfer to Ortiz family members or associates in Bryan. In total, investigators recovered receipts for about $800,000 in Western Union money transfers from families of smuggled aliens to the Ortiz organization in Bryan.

More than 40 U.S. Border Patrol and Texas Highway Patrol seizures of illegal aliens in South Texas have been linked to the Ortiz organization.

Darcy Ortiz Quezada, 24, of Bryan, and Salyers previously entered guilty pleas in Laredo to the same count of the indictment and are scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 3, 2008. The alleged leader of the conspiracy, Baudel Ortiz, 31, of Bryan, until recently was a fugitive. However, on Aug. 17, he was apprehended in Bryan and was presented for initial appearance in federal court in Laredo on Aug. 19. His detention hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26.

The statutory maximum penalty for each alien smuggling violation is a maximum term of imprisonment of not more than 10 years, a maximum $250,000 fine, and a term of supervised release of up to three years.

ICE conducted the investigation; Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert S. Johnson, Southern District of Texas, is prosecuting this case.

-- ICE --

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