Passersby saw blood dripping out of the BMW and said there was a foul smell emanating from the vehicle left on a city street in San Diego.
Police who investigated found three dead Chinese illegal immigrants — two of them a mother and her 15-year-old son — stuffed in the trunk.
This week authorities announced they’d made an arrest, nabbing Neil Edwin Valera at a bus station in San Diego over the weekend, three weeks after they say he sneaked the three Chinese migrants across the border in the trunk of his BMW 528i sedan.
While sneaking illegal immigrants over fences or across rivers is the most common method, the deaths of these migrants highlight the more lucrative trade in bringing them straight through the country’s front door undetected.
“These tragic cases are grim reminders that attempting to cross into the United States illegally in the trunk of a car — and putting your faith, hope and future in the hands of smugglers — is extremely dangerous,” said Robert Brewer, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California who’s prosecuting the case.
Smuggling of Chinese is particularly common through the legal ports of entry. The Washington Times has reviewed thousands of smuggling cases over the last 16 months and found Chinese migrants paying in excess of $50,000 to smuggling organizations to be snuck in trunks or modified fuel tanks, stuffed inside floorboards or fake stereo speakers, and even forced to fit inside car center consoles.
Customs and Border Protection officers who man the ports of entry regularly report opening glove boxes of cars to find arms, hands or heads sticking up, signaling a migrant has been contorted to fit behind the dashboard. Sometimes the migrants are stuffed in so tightly that the fire department has to be called to come cut them out of the vehicles, in the way they would for crash victims.
One smuggler in a case last month told authorities he always requested Chinese migrants for his smuggling trips because, authorities recorded him saying, “it is easier to hide smaller subjects in the vehicle.”
Authorities have not revealed the cause of death of the three migrants in the new case. San Diego police didn’t respond to an inquiry and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to provide information beyond what was in court documents.
Prosecutors have charged Mr. Valera with smuggling crimes, including death resulting from smuggling, but have not lodged a homicide charge against him.
Mr. Valera pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors asked that he be detained without bail.
ICE Homeland Security Investigations agents say Mr. Valera owned the BMW and never reported it stolen. They also have footage of him entering the U.S. through the San Ysidro port of entry on Aug. 9, the same day the vehicle was left on a San Diego street. Neighbors finally reported it to police on Aug. 11, by which time the smell was attracting attention.
When police found the car they discovered two female bodies in the trunk. Detectives later realized there was a third body pressed up against the rear wall of the trunk.
That turned out to be a 15-year-old male, the son of one of the two women.
HSI agents also have another key link — they detained Mr. Valera’s wife, Nora Gabriela Navarro-Hernandez, a Mexican citizen, when she entered the U.S. last month. Under questioning she said Mr. Valera, 50, told her he was smuggling one illegal immigrant into the U.S. on Aug. 9. He called her as he was at the port of entry waiting his turn.
He was being paid $5,000 to make the trip, and was told to take his vehicle to a shopping center in Chula Vista, California, where he turned it over to someone else “with the agreement that the vehicle was to be returned in a timely manner with money placed under the car seat cover,” according to court documents.
After Aug. 9, Mr. Valera did continue to cross back and forth over the border but did so on foot.
Authorities say all three are now positively identified as Chinese. They have a witness who identified one of the women as Ying Lin, 39, from Fujian. Homeland Security has no record of her entering the U.S. legally.
Smuggling migrants through ports of entry can be incredibly lucrative, usually paying even more than driving migrants inside the U.S. who crossed the border themselves.
According to data compiled over the last 16 months by The Washington Times, migrants caught being smuggled in vehicles through border crossings paid an average of $16,700, or about twice what migrants who jumped the fence, swam the Rio Grande or otherwise snuck into the U.S. paid to their smugglers.
Of that $16,700, the drivers caught at the border with the migrants in their cars were being paid an average of $3,500 to make the trip.
Chinese migrants are particularly hot commodities in smuggling through the ports of entry, with rates of up to $70,000 per person recorded in the court files.
In Mr. Valera’s case, it’s not clear how the migrants died.