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Man pleads guilty in human smuggling that led to fatal Imperial County crash

Law enforcement officers work at the scene of a deadly crash near Holtville, Calif., on March 2, 2021. Authorities say a truck crashed into an SUV carrying 25 people on a Southern California highway, killing at least 13 people.
Gregory Bull
Law enforcement officers work at the scene of a deadly crash near Holtville, Calif., on March 2, 2021.

A man who coordinated a human smuggling operation that led to an Imperial County crash that killed 13 people and injured several others pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court on Tuesday.

Jose Cruz Noguez, 49, of Mexicali, Mexico, admitted his role in a smuggling attempt that resulted in the March 2, 2021 crash near Holtville that killed 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals when an SUV carrying the victims crashed into a tractor trailer at the intersection of Norrish Road and state Route 115.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said Cruz Noguez's involvement in the smuggling operation included trying to recruit a driver and scouting for law enforcement in the area where vehicles loaded with undocumented migrants would be traveling.


In the early morning hours of March 2, two SUVs drove through a cut- open portion of border fence near Calexico, then headed west onto Interstate 8, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

One of the SUVs broke down on Interstate 8 near Holtville and 19 undocumented immigrants were arrested there by U.S. Border Patrol agents, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The other SUV was involved in the fatal wreck, with a dozen victims dying at the crash scene and another who died at a hospital.

Prosecutors later filed charges against another person, 49-year-old Froylan Cortez Avalos, who remains a fugitive.

According to the indictment, Cortez Avalos took part in the planning and preparation of the smuggling event, including working with others to cut open a 10-foot section of border fence in order to allow the vehicles to enter the United States.

Cruz Noguez is slated to be sentenced in June following his pleas to one count of conspiracy to bring in undocumented migrants and three counts of bringing in undocumented migrants for financial gain.

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