August 21, 2008

Ortiz family members plead guilty to human trafficking

By ANA LEY / Associated Press

Five people linked to an immigrant smuggling operation run by the infamous Ortiz family pleaded guilty to trafficking charges on Thursday, prosecutors said.

U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle said in a news release that Porfirio Ortiz, 37, Calixtro Ortiz, 52, Bernardino Ortiz, 49, and Sandra Ortiz, 32, all relatives living in Bryan; and Christopher Gene Torres, 24, of Kingsland, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants for commercial advantage or private financial gain.

Lawyers for Porfirio Ortiz, Calixtro Ortiz and Sandra Ortiz did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press on Thursday. Bernardino Ortiz's lawyer declined to comment.

Torres' lawyer said his client is not as involved with the operation because he is only facing punishment for the transportation of two illegals in separate cases in 2004.

"My client is probably not looking at much time," said attorney Francisco Javier Montemayor, adding that Torres would probably serve a year or less under a plea bargain. "We're happy with the way things turned out."

The smugglers can each serve as many as 10 years in jail, face a maximum $250,000 fine and a term of supervised release of up to three years. Sentencing is set for Nov. 20.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement began investigating the group in January 2005 when Border Patrol agents found a group of illegal immigrants hiding behind a pile of hay inside a horse trailer as they crossed a checkpoint en route to Hebbronville.

The driver, 28-year-old Tyler Ross Severn, told agents Porfirio Ortiz hired him to drive the truck and trailer to Rio Grande City and loaded the five immigrants into the trailer. The immigrants were to pay Porfirio Ortiz $2,500 each, of which Severn was to receive $300 per person.

Severn told authorities he had made numerous trips transporting illegal immigrants for the Ortiz family. Calixtro Ortiz served as a guide for the immigrants and would deliver immigrants to Severn at a house in Rio Grande City, DeGabrielle said. Severn would then transport the immigrants to Bryan, where Porfirio or Bernardino Ortiz would pay him.

Smuggling operation leaders usually either drove loads of people or recruited drivers to transport them in a horse trailer with a live horse to make the trip look legitimate. They often snuck people through one of the South Texas checkpoints on the way to Bryan, hiding them in the tack room at the front of the trailers.

Drivers hired by the defendants revealed to investigators they had been paid as much as $70,000 each to smuggle people. More than 40 U.S. Border Patrol and Highway Patrol seizures of undocumented immigrants in South Texas have been linked to the Ortiz organization, DeGabrielle said.

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