An employee of the Starr County district attorney’s office was arrested and charged by federal authorities of conspiracy to smuggle humans into the country, transporting them to Houston along with two other charged individuals. The employee used a Starr County vehicle to smuggle the aliens.
Bernice Annette Garza, a former “crime victims coordinator” who was fired by Starr County DA Gocha Allen Ramirez, is alleged to have admitted to participating in more than 40 human smuggling events since June. Garza would allegedly drive the aliens in a Starr County vehicle past the Hebbronville checkpoint, where she would pass the job on to two other individuals, Juan Antonio Charles and Magaly Rosa. Charles and Rosa would then drive the aliens to Houston in the county vehicle. Rosa alleged that Garza gave her the county vehicle and a DA badge to display, and the aliens were instructed to portray themselves as crime victims. In return, Rosa stated she would receive a payment of $3,000.
The group would make about two to three trips to Houston per week, each time transporting about three to four undocumented aliens. The conspiracy was discovered after the county vehicle was stopped for a tinted window violation in Victoria County. The Victoria County Sheriff’s Department had received previous tips that the vehicle had made several unauthorized trips to Houston and was suspected of being involved in criminal activity.
The deputy who pulled them over observed several suspicious circumstances, including nervous behavior from the passengers, conflicting stories, and one passenger’s claim of being a crime victim that appeared to be “rehearsed.”
Rosa stated that the aliens were dropped off at a park near her house, after which she or Charles would pick them up, buy them clothes, and feed them. Garza, the employee of the DA, would then pick them up in the county vehicle, which displayed the emblem of the Starr County DA’s office.
Starr County District Attorney Gocha Ramirez released a statement, saying, “These allegations are a prime example of the violation of public trust to our community, the victims Ms. Garza serviced, and this office. The investigation into this matter shall continue with the proper authorities, and the 229th Judicial District Attorney’s Office shall remain firm in its pursuit of justice.” Garza’s arrest stemmed from an investigation by the DA’s office, which worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the Texas Rangers.
Gov. Greg Abbott responded to the arrests by proposing a new mandatory minimum:
I’m getting damn tired of Texas residents smuggling people into our country illegally.
I will be seeking a mandatory minimum of at least five years in prison for anyone caught committing this crime. https://t.co/X2PNg82uOm
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) December 12, 2022
Under current Texas penal code, human smuggling is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years but with a mandatory minimum sentence of only two years. As a response to this Starr County smuggling conspiracy, Gov. Abbott wants to raise that statutory minimum to five years.