(The Center Square) – Federal agents are continuing to work to bring justice foreign nationals in the U.S. illegally who have committed crimes against American citizens.
In Washington, D.C., for example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents recently arrested two El Salvadorans wanted for rape in Maryland who were attempting to flee the U.S. by heading back to El Salvador.
Federal agents apprehended the suspected rapists and fugitives at Washington Dulles International Airport in late October.
Oscar Armando Hernandez Mata, a 53-year-old Salvadoran who was illegally in the U.S., was first arrested in Montgomery County, Maryland, with a warrant for felony second degree rape and sexual abuse of a minor. Hernandez Mata was previously ordered to be removed from the U.S. by an immigration judge in 2006.
CBP’s National Targeting Center alerted airport officials of his plan to depart on a flight to El Salvador and Dulles CBP officers apprehended him at the departure gate.
Nine hours later, CBP agents arrested another Salvadoran wanted for felony second degree rape, also in Maryland. Carlos Ernesto Osorto Molina, a 53-year-old Salvadoran with lawful permanent resident status, had a warrant out for his arrest in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for felony second degree rape.
He was flagged at the airport by Dulles CBP officers and apprehended as he attempted to board a different flight to El Salvador.
“The arrests of these two fugitives, accused of rather heinous charges, illustrates Customs and Border Protection’s continued commitment to assist our law enforcement partners in ensuring that victims have a voice, and that fugitives of serious crimes have their day in court,” CBP’s Acting Area Port Director at the Area Port of Washington, D.C., Christine Waugh, said.
Critics argue that their plan to flee to El Salvador indicates that any claims they made to justify staying in the U.S. were likely invalid because after they were caught committing a crime they tried to go back to El Salvador.
In south Texas on Wednesday, a federal jury convicted a South Texas man on multiple counts of hostage taking, smuggling and weapons charges. The case came about from a multi-agency investigation conducted by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals Service, Hidalgo County Sherriff’s Office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Not all perpetrators who engage in human smuggling are noncitizens. In this case, Heriberto Mendez-Lozano, 25, of McAllen, Texas, was convicted Nov. 8, 2023, on hostage, smuggling and weapons charges after a three-day trial.
According to court documents, last September, Mendez-Lozano and his coconspirators held hostage five foreign nationals who illegally entered the U.S. in the border town of Donna, Texas.
Human smuggling is a felony, according to state and federal law, carrying different sentences depending on the degree of harm inflicted. The crime often involves willing participants who pay to be brought illegally into the U.S. who don’t realize how dangerous the journey is or that they will likely be held in bondage once they arrive, border agents explain. Often times, they pay to be smuggled into the U.S. believing they will get to their destination but instead are held against their will in stash houses, where they are often extorted.
Mendez-Lozano and other hostage takers “brandished firearms, held guns to the heads and ribs of hostages, threatened them, and forced them to call family members to demand money for their release,” according to an announcement from ICE.
A multi-agency investigation led agents to the stash house, where they arrested Mendez-Lozano – and realized he already had a pending warrant for aggravated robbery. Authorities also arrested his co-conspirator, Lorenzo Campbell, and rescued all hostages.
Mendez-Lozano faces life in federal prison and remains in custody pending a sentencing hearing scheduled in January.
The described alleged crimes he and his coconspirators committed are typical of smuggling and stash houses operations in border communities, law enforcement officials have explained to The Center Square.
Stash houses can be homes, sheds or any structure used to hide illegal activity from law enforcement “to blend in, so they can be found even in the middle of a city or gated community,” the FBI explains. They’re identified by a lot of trash outside and multiple vehicles entering and exiting the property at all hours of the day or night, with different license plates, including paper “buyer” or “dealer” tags.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this year directed the state legislature to increase penalties for human smuggling and operating stash houses in Texas, which it did. The bill recently passed, which Abbott will soon sign into law.
HSI encourages suspicious smuggling activity be reported by calling 866-347-2423.
The Texas Department of Public Safety is offering a $5,000 cash reward for information leading to the identification of stash houses. Tips can be sent by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-252-TIPS (8477) or online.