Honduran woman sentenced to 10 years for role as 'high-level' human smuggling coordinator

A Honduran woman charged with operating as a “high-level” coordinator was sentenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling over 100 migrants from Honduras to the U.S. making millions of dollars in the process, federal officials said Tuesday.

Maria Mendoza-Mendoza, 52, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins to 120 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, said Zach J. Stoebe, a Justice Department spokesman. Nicknamed “La Guera” for her light skin, Mendoza was at the center of a human smuggling organization that operated in Altar and Sasabe, Sonora, just across the border from Arizona. 

Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began targeting her organization in 2018 and linked La Guera to dozens of smuggling attempts. The group helped move people through the
Altar Valley in Southern Arizona, crossing the Arizona-Mexico border via
the Tohono O’odham Nation to a stash house in Arlington, Ariz., about 40
miles west of metro Phoenix.

Mendoza was one of 27 people charged with human smuggling as part of a
wide-ranging investigation, and she attempted to flee to Guatemala.

Last June, U.S. Attorney for Arizona Gary M. Restaino held a press conference and announced the U.S. Marshals Service managed to extradite Mendoza from a prison in Honduras. This was the first time Honduras has extradited one of its citizens to face charges in the U.S. for human smuggling, Restaino said.

Mendoza was “a high-level, Honduran-based human smuggling coordinator who, along with co-conspirators throughout Central America, Mexico, and the United States, was responsible for facilitating the illegal entry, transport, and harboring of numerous undocumented non-citizens,” said federal officials last summer.

Mendoza faced 18 counts, including conspiracy to transport and harbor people for profit, as well as transportation of and harboring, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. She was also charged with conspiracy to launder money, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction.

However, in January, Mendoza plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport people for profit.

The investigation began in October 2016 when special agents with HSI in Sells, Ariz. discovered a human smuggling organization moving “thousands of people” across the U.S.-Mexico border to stash houses in Phoenix, Ariz. The organization recruited and coordinated load drivers, collected fraudulent documents from people, and sought payments from families to move people through Mexico and into the U.S., according to court documents. Through 2018, HSI agents tracked and arrested members of the smuggling ring, using wiretaps and
other investigative tools to break down the smuggling network.

HSI agents targeted phones and tracked at least 140 people in the country without authorization across 12 states after crossing into the U.S. through Arizona. They focused their investigation on Audias Sanchez-Colin, and later linked him to Mendoza through their cell phones.

Officials also tracked the movement of money by Mendoza, involving a “large
numbers of non-citizens” and “significant amounts of cash laundered
through bank accounts” in the United States. Investigators conducted
thousands of hours of surveillance on the principles involved in the
smuggling scheme, and executed “numerous federal search warrants and
also arrested hundreds of people,” Restaino said last June.

A wiretap showed Mendoza was “responsible for supplying” Central American and Mexican migrants to smugglers “operating in and around” Altar and Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico.

She also employed foot guides and money launderers, and smuggled aliens into the United States to work for Sanchez-Colin as load drivers and stash house caretakers, according to court records. Border Patrol agents said for years people apprehended on the border identified La Guera as the person who helped smuggle them into the country. Mendoza also went by Roxana Guadalupe Hernandez de Paz, according to court records.

Later, the agents confirmed La Guera was at the center of the smuggling organization by showing 10 people apprehended by Border Patrol her picture. 

Mendoza’s organization funneled millions in smuggling fees and threatened violence and death for those who failed her, threatening to “bleed out” a guide as punishment, while telling a family of a migrant if they didn’t cover his smuggling fee, he would be thrown “back in the desert.”

In one text exchange, a man told her “they’re going to kill me here,
they’re going to lynch me in Guatemala.” She replied “I told him ‘if
they lynch you, I don’t care.'”

Among those smuggled by the organization were children, and Mendoza referenced at least two children who were sick, including one 10-11 year old who was “urinating blood” as he was smuggled through the desert.

Mendoza was “a primary leader of an extensive, high-dollar, smuggling organization that realized substantial revenue by smuggling migrants (often children) in dangerous ways,” wrote federal prosecutors.

Leo Lamas, the deputy special agent in charge for HSI in Tucson told Tucson Sentinel last year much of the investigation was conducted by HSI’s office in Sells, Ariz.
The agency regularly investigates human smuggling organizations,
compiling all the evidence they can from an encounter with smugglers or
people attempting to come into the U.S., he said. “This criminal
activity is conducted by organized crime groups operating at a very
high-level very similar to the way drug cartels operate.”

He said
Mendoza used threats of retaliation to keep her own organization in
line, “threatened smuggled people and their families” by telling people
they would be left in the desert for non-payment of smuggling fees,” and
“discussed ownership of human beings as if they are a commodity for
financial gain.”

Lamas called the investigation against Mendoza and others a “shining example of the way these cases should be done.”

we’re doing as investigators, we’re trying to get all the evidence out
of it. It could be a witness statement. It could be data retrieved from a
telephone. It could be physical evidence, where there’s something being
worn by the people being smuggled. So then we’re trying to get together
all that data and analyze it,” Lamas said. “And sometimes when we
analyze that data we can start matching that to previous known
intelligence. And then there will be another attempt, and we start
seeing some commonalities there,” he said.

“Do we have that
success every single time, where a case goes to this magnitude? No, we
don’t, because there are so many of these events,” Lamas said. “But this
is the type of investigation that we try to do at HSI, we want to make
as big as possible.”

Biden administration targeting ‘ruthless’ smuggling operations

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas praised the efforts of federal agents, including special agents with Homeland Security Investigations who launched the probe against Mendoza-Mendoza and her smuggling ring in October 2016.

“Today’s sentencing again highlights the extraordinary work being done by our Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel who, day in and day out, are relentless in their mission to disrupt and dismantle dangerous smuggling operations and to secure our border,” Mayorkas said. “This sentencing is a testament to the partnership and collaboration this Administration has strengthened across the federal enterprise, and with our allies in countries such as Honduras and Mexico, to crack down on criminal organizations.” 

“We will continue our work alongside our federal, state, and local partners to attack the ruthless smuggling operations that prey on the vulnerable and cause so much death and trauma,” Mayorkas said. 

“Human smuggling is an insidious crime and one that this defendant
participated in over 100 times—all for profit,” said Fransisco B. Burrola, Special Agent in
Charge of HSI Arizona.

“Human smugglers do nothing
but prey on vulnerable people who at times pay with their lives while
crossing the border. Smugglers endanger and exploit people by using
dangerous networks that threaten the safety of our communities and our
national security; HSI is committed to combating this type of cross
border crime along with our partner law enforcement agencies,” Burrola said. “Let this
sentencing serve as a warning to other smugglers contemplating their
continued participation—prison awaits you.”

“Cooperation and collaboration are key tools in protecting America from the reach of international human smuggling organizations,” said  Restaino. “We thank Honduras for its willingness to extradite, the various local agencies who interdicted migrants and helped us make the connection to a larger organization, and all of the JTFA partners for dismantling a smuggling network.”

“Today’s sentencing is the latest example of the great work of Joint
Task Force Alpha, which we launched nearly three years ago to hold
accountable the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling groups, and
which has obtained more than 240 convictions to date.” said Attorney
General Merrick B. Garland. “This defendant exploited vulnerable
migrants for her own profit, risking their lives and our national
security in the process. Together with our partners across the federal
government, the Justice Department will continue our efforts to
dismantle and disrupt human smuggling networks like those the defendant

Garland established JTFA in June 2021 in an effort to target the “most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups” operating in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Since 2021, the task force has arrested 305 people, including leaders, organizers, and significant facilitators of smuggling networks. The task force has also seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, vehicles, firearms and ammunition, and drugs.

“Its mission is to strengthen the department’s overall efforts to target leaders, organizers and facilitators of human smuggling networks hurting in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and impacting our border communities,” said Restaino. “That’s a lot to say, so let me break it down. We’re targeting the leaders of organizations to disrupt their command and control networks. We’re focused on partnerships, the critical partnerships with our sovereign neighbors down south, and we’re prioritizing subjects who abuse exploit and endanger the economic migrants seeking a better life here,” he said.

Last June, Restaino said the task force arrested at least 191 people in the U.S. and internationally, including leaders and organizers. “Importantly, we are disgorging dirty money from these organizations and have recovered substantial asset forfeitures, as well as real property vehicles, firearms, ammunition and drugs,” he said. 

As part of the indictments, federal officials also said they seized four homes in Gainesville, Georgia, the property in Arlington, and a Ford Explorer. Federal officials also seized money — though the government did not disclose the amount — writing only in court documents that it was a “sum of money equal to the amount of proceeds obtained as a result of the offenses.

Mendoza extradited despite ‘difficult circumstances’

Last year, Restaino praised the Honduran government for quickly agreeing to send Mendoza to the U.S.

“We’re here today also because Honduras stepped up and extradited Maria Mendoza-Mendoza to the United States,” Restaino said. “We understand this is the first time Honduras has extradited one of its citizens charged with alien smuggling to the United States, and we value Honduras’ confidence in us and our legal system.”

Mendoza was arrested by officials in Honduras in February 2023, and by that  June, she was in the U.S. despite what Restaino called “difficult circumstances.”

While Mendoza was held in Honduras, a prison brawl between rival gangs Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 accelerated, leading to the death of 46 women at the prison in Tamara, about 30 miles from Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital. During the riot, women held in the prison were sprayed with gunfire, hacked with machetes, while the survivors were set aflame, CBS News reported.

U.S. officials decided to extradite Mendoza despite the violence in the prison, said Van Bayless, the acting U.S. Marshal for Arizona.

He said the agency executed over 759 “foreign expeditions,” in 2022, and “over 525” by June 2023. Bayless said this extradition was “absolutely unheard of” because of its speed. Despite the violence in Honduras, the agency sent deputy U.S. Marshals from Arizona to Honduras and after a few “hiccups,” the deputy marshals were able to get Mendoza to the U.S.