- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

HOUSTON (AP) — Three persons involved in the nation’s deadliest human-smuggling attempt were part of a scheme that treated immigrants “worse than cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse,” a prosecutor said yesterday in opening statements.

The trial of Victor Jesus Rodriguez, Claudia Carrizales de Villa and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar is the first related to the May 2003 deaths of 19 illegal immigrants inside a tractor-trailer.

Prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez said the three were part of a smuggling ring that tried to transport more than 70 immigrants from southern Texas to Houston. But defense attorneys said the three had minimal involvement in the ring.

Packed inside the nearly airless trailer, the immigrants began succumbing to stifling temperatures that authorities estimate reached 173 degrees. The trailer was abandoned at a truck stop, and authorities found 17 immigrants dead inside. Two died later.

The victims, including a 5-year-old Mexican boy, were from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic.

The defendants each face 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. If convicted, each could get life in prison.

Daniel Rodriguez said the defendants are part of a “criminal enterprise that treated people worse than cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.”

Victor Rodriguez, 38, is accused of picking up several immigrants who had arranged with his parents to be smuggled. Authorities say his parents ran one of the operation’s smuggling cells.

But Alberto Pullen, Victor Rodriguez’s attorney, said his client had little involvement. Victor Rodriguez has admitted to dropping off three illegal immigrants to be smuggled at the request of his father.

“That is the extent of his involvement in this,” Mr. Pullen said.

Miss Carrizales, 36, concealed immigrants in her apartment and fed them at a restaurant owned by the leader of the smuggling ring, Karla Patricia Chavez, who pleaded guilty in June, prosecutors said.

“My client was simply a cook,” said defense attorney Ali Fazel.

The prosecutor said Mr. Garcia-Tobar, a 25-year-old from Guatemala, worked with Chavez to help recruit truckers to haul the immigrants. But Mr. Garcia-Tobar’s attorney said his client is connected to the case only because of his relationship with the ringleader.

The trial for the man who purportedly drove the truck and later abandoned it is set to begin Jan. 5, while the trial for another defendant is on hold. Five others have pleaded guilty. Four were arrested in Mexico and face trial there.

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