Alleged human smugglers accused of moving migrants over U.S. border in freight train cars

In the early hours of an August Monday morning in 2023, U.S. border officers noticed something strange in an X-ray of a rail car meant to be carrying bulk plastic pellets.

What appeared to be a series of anomalies turned out to be 29 human beings.

“Twenty-eight of the subjects were determined to be Mexican nationals,” David Spitzer, the special agent tasked with investigating the case swore in an affidavit filed in a Washington state court last week.

“One was a Colombian national and identified as the individual guiding the group and instructing people where to hide and how to conceal themselves from law enforcement.”

A fixer named ‘Chuy’

Spitzer’s account of the incident is part of a criminal complaint filed against two U.S. men in relation to what Homeland Security investigators claim is a human smuggling network.

Authorities arrested Jesus Ortiz-Plata, 45, of Independence, Ore., and Juan Pablo Cuellar Medina, 35, of Everett, Wa., last week as the two men were allegedly meeting to transport two Hondurans and Indian national into the United States.

A hand holds a cell phone
Authorities say a number of migrants intercepted at the border gave them the same phone number as a contact for a fixer named ‘Chuy.’ (CBC)

According to Spitzer’s affidavit, Ortiz-Plata is also known as “Chuy” — a contact who has served as a key fixer in relation to a series of foiled human-smuggling attempts by train and car across the border between B.C. and Washington.

“These defendants have allegedly been linked to an extremely dangerous smuggling scheme where people are loaded into freight cars on trains traveling from Canada into the U.S.,” U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman said in a statement.

“Being locked in a freight train car is dangerous — there is no control over the heat, cold or ventilation, and people can be injured or killed by shifting freight.”

‘Her father made arrangements’

U.S. Border Patrol figures show a stark rise in the number of people apprehended in recent years trying to cross into the United States from B.C. The figure rose from 166 in 2021 to 494 in 2022. By 2023, it jumped again to 1,662. So far this year, arrests already total 1,810.

Spitzer claims the name “Chuy” first popped up in September 2022 during the arrest of two Mexicans caught near Sumas, Wa., about 60 kilometres southeast of Vancouver.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer walks through a line of cars
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection patrols the Peace Arch crossing from Canada near Blaine, Wa., where agents have seen an increase in the number of migrants caught trying to cross the border illegally. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Two months later, one of five Mexicans arrested in the same area told investigators “her father made arrangements with a smuggler named ‘Chuy’ … [she] further states that ‘Chuy’ was responsible for successfully smuggling many people previously into the United States.”

According to the affidavit, border agents later spoke with the driver of a minivan caught just south of the border with seven people who had just crossed the border illegally. The driver claimed he was delivering the migrants to ‘Chuy’ in Oregon in exchange for $500 per person.

The intercept of the train last August was followed by a similar bust involving a train containing 13 Mexican nationals last November.

Agents arrested Ortiz-Plata last week after tailing him to an apartment building in Seattle, where he was arrested as he and three undocumented migrants climbed into his Jeep.

Authorities claim Cuellar Medina was living in the apartment where the three migrants were staying before Ortiz-Plata picked them up. He allegedly met two of them when they got off a freight train.

‘Don’t do it’

According to Spitzer, two of the migrants were Hondurans who had been living and working in Vancouver. They allegedly paid $4,000 each to be smuggled to Portland, Ore.

The two claimed they were picked up at a bus stop in B.C. and driven to a train station where they were told “to climb onboard the train and hide in the natural voids within the rail cars of the freight train.”

0 Avenue in Surrey, B.C. separates the United States from Canada.
0 Avenue in Surrey, B.C., separates the United States from Canada. U.S. border agents say they are catching a rising number of people crossing the border illegally. (Google Earth )

The third migrant spoke in Hindi and claimed he left India two weeks before his arrest, flying to Toronto.

“A person from his village put him in contact with a person who could facilitate his travel into the United States illegally,” Spitzer wrote.

The man claimed he flew to Vancouver and was then driven to the border, where “he was directed to walk across … to a waiting vehicle.”

None of the charges against either accused have been proven in court.

In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the message “for anyone who is thinking of entering the United States illegally is simple: don’t do it.”

“When migrants cross the border illegally, they put their lives in peril,” a spokesperson said in an email.

“Smugglers continue to lie to migrants, claiming the borders are open. The borders are not open to irregular migration, and people should not attempt to make the dangerous journey.”


Posted in CBC