EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Border Patrol agents had been keeping tabs on the white, unmarked water truck often seen in and around the Yuma, Arizona, area.
Unlike similar water trucks, this one had no logo, signs or lettering, and according to court documents obtained by Border Report, agents from the Yuma Sector for weeks suspected that migrant smugglers used the truck.
On Oct. 23, 2023, agents realized their intuitions when they stopped the water truck and allegedly found 19 migrants stuffed in the tank and three in the cab.
Two men — Antonio Varela-Verdugo, a citizen of Mexico, and Gilberto Villalva, a U.S. Citizen living in Mexico — have been charged in the case.
Villalva, born in 1988, allegedly guided the truck to a stash house; Varela-Verdugo, a man in his 20s, is accused of driving.
According to court documents, Villalva and passenger Jose Ramon Perez-Soto had entered the U.S. legally from Mexicali at the Calexico West Port of Entry in Calexico, California. About an hour later, agents spotted Villalva’s black Honda Civic 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 would eventually drive off in the truck.
Villalva first told border agents that a female friend in Mexicali, whose name he did not know, had convinced him to pick her up after she crossed the border illegally.
Records show Villalva changed his statement, saying that he agreed to payment for being a lookout for the water truck as it transported migrants.
Villalva told investigators he was involved with “pollos,” which is Spanish for chickens but slang for smuggled migrants. Likewise, smugglers often are referred to as “polleros.”
Varela-Verdugo told investigators that a man approached him in Mexicali and asked him if he wanted to enter the U.S. illegally. Varela-Verdugo said he was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, but had been living in Mexicali for a year and had unsuccessfully attempted to enter the U.S. several times.
He told agents, the documents state, that before crossing the border on Oct. 23, three gunmen asked the group of migrants if anyone knew how to drive a big 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 that he was essentially forced to drive the water truck at gunpoint,” records state.
He told investigators that once the truck arrived at the border wall, the migrants jumped in. The driver of the truck, later identified as Perez-Soto, told Varela-Verdugo to get behind the wheel, put on the driver’s sunglasses and construction gloves and follow the directions from an unknown male on a cellphone. Three migrant women jumped in the cab with him while Perez-Soto allegedly went south into Mexico.
The person on the phone led Varela-Verdugo to Villalva’s waiting car, and both went to a gas station and then an alleged stash house.
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 arrive in the morning and then leave, and Perez-Soto taking off in the truck a short time later.
Agents from the Yuma Air Branch gained visuals of the water truck and maintained surveillance using a long-range camera lens.
Agents said they observed the truck as it made 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 the Andrade Port of Entry nearby.
Agents then observed Civic and the truck, now being driven by Varela-Verdugo, at a residence on 1st Avenue in Yuma.
Villalva told investigators that the truck crashed into the home’s carport as it backed up. Villalva said a woman walked out of the home, got into his car and gave him new directions to guide the water truck to a different house.
Agents stopped both vehicles as they left.
Villalva and Varela-Verdugo have been charged with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for profit. They each face a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both, and a term of up to three years supervised release.
The U.S. Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector conducted the interdiction and subsequent investigation in this case. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona-Phoenix Division, Yuma Office, will prosecute.