After spotting an oddly placed truck parked in a strip mall in the Woodlake-Briar Meadow neighborhood of Houston on Sunday afternoon, Houston police officers discovered 12 undocumented people, including one 16-year-old girl, trapped in the sweltering cargo bay of a box truck.
Three individuals have since been tagged with felony charges of smuggling of persons.
“There is no good season for human trafficking, but summertime in Houston has to be the worst,” said Harris County First Assistant District Attorney Tom Berg in a press release.
Houston Police officer Chris Meade was patrolling the area for an unrelated investigation when he noticed the Penske rental van parked in the strip mall at 7636 Harwin, about five miles west of the Interstate-610 loop. Meade became suspicious because of individuals scattering throughout the lot, as well as the truck, which was driverless but felt warm, as if recently driven.
When Meade opened the rear latch, he found the 12 undocumented persons, thought to be from Latin America, with no food and very little water, who “looked like they were on the verge of heat exhaustion,” explained JoAnne Musick, division chief for sex crimes and human trafficking in the Harris Country District Attorney’s office, at a press conference Monday. Temperatures inside the truck were said to have exceeded 100 degrees.
The victims, who were taken to a police station for food and water, had been trapped in the cargo bay of the truck for at least 12 hours. Musick said it was unclear where they were heading or for what reason, although it was revealed in interviews that all had paid, or had family members who paid, to be smuggled into the United States.
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Priscila Perez Beltran, 21, Adela Alvarez, 26, and Nelson Cortes Garcia, 27, were found at the scene and each charged with trafficking persons. Surveillance footage from a shop at the strip mall revealed that each had been in and around the truck for most of the day. Human trafficking is typically considered a second-degree offense, but because of the dangerous conditions of the truck, as well as the presence of a minor, the trafficking charged was enhanced to a first degree felony, according to Musick.
Beltran, Alvarez and Garcia each face two to 20 years in prison if convicted and are being held on $300,000 bail.
Musick emphasized the investigation into the smuggling is ongoing and more arrests are possible. The 12 victims are currently being held and questioned as witnesses with Homeland Security, which would not clarify the future of the 12 recovered when the investigation finishes.
“Thirty more minutes and this could have been a dozen homicide cases,” Berg added. “The quick action of the Houston Police is commendable.”