8:52 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 22, 2020

Guatemalan man convicted of role in immigration incident resulting in death

A 33-year-old man is now being sent to federal prison after admitting he transported fatal immigrants, US attorney Ryan K. Patrick announced.

Luis Morales-Melendez, a Guatemalan national who illegally entered the United States himself, pleaded guilty on December 2, 2019.

On Wednesday, US District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo sentenced him to 48 months in prison. Morales-Melendez is not a US citizen and is expected to face deportation proceedings after the verdict. At the hearing, the court found that while there was no evidence that Morales-Melendez intended death, he was responsible for their safety when they crossed the river.

“Illegal entry into the US is not just a crime. It can be life threatening, ”said Matthew J. Hudak, Chief Patrol Agent. “The harsh terrain and conditions along the border are inherently dangerous and are made worse by the persistent and reckless actions of smugglers who endanger lives. Morales-Mendez's heartless actions over the past year have unnecessarily killed someone. This case is another unfortunate reminder that nobody but his life or that of a family member should be in the hands of a criminal organization or people smugglers. "

"The tragic loss of life in this case is an example of the very real risks people are exposed to when they put their lives in the hands of smugglers," said Shane Folden Immigration and Customs Enforcement, special agent in charge in San Antonio. "Those responsible for the illegal movement of people in and through our country put personal gain before 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 August 22, 2019, authorities met 12 people near Zebra Creek in Laredo. The investigation found that they were all undocumented immigrants who had entered the country illegally via the Rio Grande. Several identified Morales-Melendez as the leader who led them to the United States.

Another man had been part of the group but died on the way. Authorities would identify him as Melvin Ramirez, 43, from the Dominican Republic.

The investigation found that Ramirez had fought in the water, but Morales-Melendez offered no help and did not use rope to help him. Morales-Melendez denied hearing anyone shout for help. While some life jackets were available, there wasn't enough for everyone. Ramirez's body was recovered on the Mexican side of the river the following day.

Morales-Melendez admitted to having entered the United States illegally with the group and serving as a foot guide on the American side of the river. As part of his plea, Morales-Mendez admitted receiving a discount on his smuggling fee in exchange for acting as a pedestrian after the group entered the United States.

BP initiated the investigation in conjunction with HSI. Deputy US attorney Michael Bukiewicz is pursuing the case.

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