Court documents state that the immigrant was ordered to drive a water truck with a tank full of people
EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Border Patrol agents have been monitoring an unmarked whitewater truck often seen in and around the Yuma, Arizona area.
Unlike similar water trucks, this one had no logo, markings or lettering, and according to court documents obtained by Border Report, agents from the Yuma Sector suspected for weeks that migrant smugglers used the truck.
On October 23, 2023, agents realized their hunch when they stopped the water truck and found 19 migrants crammed into the tank and three in the cab.
Two men were charged in this case – Antonio Varela Verdugo, a Mexican citizen, and Gilberto Villalva, an American citizen living in Mexico.
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Villalva, born in 1988, allegedly drove the truck to a hideout; Varela-Verdugo, a man in his 20s, is charged with driving.
According to court documents, Villalva and passenger Jose Ramon Perez Soto entered the United States legally from Mexicali at the Calexico West Port of Entry in Calexico, California. About an hour later, agents discovered the black Honda Civic driven by Villalva at a home in Yuma, Arizona, where the water truck was parked. Agents said he left about five minutes later and went to the Quechan Casino in Winterhaven, California. Perez Soto will eventually drive the truck.
Villalva initially told border agents that a friend of his in Mexicali, whose name he did not know, convinced him to bring her in after she crossed the border illegally.
Records show Villalva changed his statement, saying he agreed to pay for his work as a lookout for the water truck as it transported migrants.
Villalva told investigators that he was involved in “Chicken“, which is Spanish for chicken but is slang for smuggled immigrants. Likewise, smugglers are often referred to as “Thumbs up“.
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Varela-Verdugo told investigators that a man approached him in Mexicali and asked if he wanted to enter the United States illegally. Varela Verdugo said he was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, but had been living in Mexicali for a year and had tried to enter the United States several times without success.
He told agents, the documents state, that before crossing the border on October 23, three armed men asked the group of migrants if anyone knew how to drive a large truck. When he said yes, the gunmen ordered him to drive the water truck that would pick them up at the border.
“Varela-Verdugo claimed he was essentially forced to drive the water truck at gunpoint,” records state.
He told investigators that as soon as the truck reached the border wall, the migrants jumped into it. The truck driver, later identified as Perez Soto, told Varela-Verdugo to get behind the wheel, put on the driver’s sunglasses and construction gloves and put on the driver’s sunglasses and construction gloves. Follow the instructions from an unknown man on the mobile phone. Three migrant women jumped into the taxi with him as Pérez Soto headed south to Mexico.
The person on the phone drove Varela-Verdugo to Villalva’s waiting car, and they both went to a gas station and then to an alleged hideout.
Court documents state that since 7:48 a.m. on Oct. 23, border agents had been monitoring the Yuma residence with a drone. They spotted Villalva arriving in the morning and then leaving, and Perez Soto taking off in the truck a short time later.
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Agents from the Yuma Air Force Branch obtained photos of the water truck and continued surveillance using a long-range camera lens.
Agents said they observed the truck on its way to a gas station, the Sand Dunes rest area, and eventually toward the border wall. They also spotted Villalva leaving the casino and going to Andrade’s nearby port of entry.
Agents then noticed the Civic and the truck, now driven by Varela-Verdugo, at a home on First Avenue in Yuma.
Villalva told investigators that the truck crashed into the home’s garage while reversing. Villalva said a woman came out of the house, got into his car and gave him new directions to direct the water truck to another house.
Agents stopped both vehicles as they left.
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Villalva and Varela-Verdugo were charged with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for profit. They each face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both, and up to three years of supervised release.
The U.S. Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector conducted the interdiction and subsequent investigation of this case. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona-Phoenix, Yuma Office, will prosecute.
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