Smuggler sentenced to 10 years for leaving woman to die near Ft. Huachuca

A smuggling guide who abandoned a Mexican woman in the mountains near Fort Huachuca in 2021, where she died from exposure, was sentenced to 10 years in prison this week.

Jesus Ernesto Dessens-Romero, 28, a resident of Agua Prieta, Sonora, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge John Hinderaker during a hearing Tuesday. Following a trial in late November, a jury found Dessens-Romero guilty of a dozen charges, including conspiracy to transport and transportation of people into the country illegally, as well as doing so for profit. The jury also found Dessens-Romero placed people in jeopardy during his smuggling offenses, said Zach J. Stoebe, a Justice Department spokesman.

The case against Dessens-Romero began in February 2021 when agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, received a call about a missing woman in the Huachuca Mountains near Ft. Huachuca, about 70 miles southeast of Tucson. 

On Feb. 13, the group had followed Dessens-Romero, or “Neto” into the rugged
and remote mountains, enduring freezing temperatures and snow. Ariacne Lopez-Cortez, 23, along with 20-year-old Yaneira Lopez-Cortez, 17-year-old Maria Lopez-Cortez, and family friend Victor Torres-Hernandez, 16, crossed into the U.S. illegally with Dessens-Romero in the lead.

For days, the group hiked into the mountains, and after two days, Ariacne began to struggle. According to court records, a childhood injury meant she had difficulty with her right knee and hip, and walked with a limp. 

As the group crawled up the mountainside, sometimes sliding down the frozen ground, she developed stomach pains and soon became extremely sick and began vomiting and hallucinating.

By the third day, Ariacne was unable to walk and the group struggle to carry her. Dessens-Romero told her siblings they were close to the military base near a well-traveled road and he promised to return for Ariacne after dropping off the rest of the group. They decided to continue, leaving Ariacne behind.

Dessens-Romero did not call 911, but instead hiked to higher ground where he “called his bosses in the smuggling organization,” according to federal prosecutors. He led to the group to Sierra Vista, where a driver picked up the women destined for a stash house in Phoenix, and left Dessens-Romero at a McDonald’s in Sierra Vista.

Yaneira Lopez-Cortez later contacted her father Miguel Lopez-Munoz, and on Feb. 16, he reported his daughter missing. In response, U.S. Border Patrol agents, military officials from Fort Huachuca, Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, and HSI agents made an exhaustive search, but could not find her. Later, Yaneira called Dessens-Romero and told him Ariacne was still in the mountains, and according to prosecutors, he said it was “too late to go back that night but that he would return for Ariacne the next morning if she had not been found. He did not do so.”

In March, Dessens-Romero used WhatsApp and asked the family to take down missing person Facebook posts, telling the woman “the cartel was giving him trouble about it.” 

Yaneira said she remove the posts if he went to search for Ariacne. 

Search and Rescue group finds remains

HSI agents worked with SOS Búsqueda y Rescate, a nonprofit organization based on California dedicated to finding missing migrants, to continue searching for the missing woman, said Stoebe. On Nov. 20, 2021, members of Búsqueda y Rescate found skeletal remains in an isolated part of the Fort Huachuca Army installation, said Stoebe.

Dental records later confirmed the remains belonged to Ariacne Lopez-Cortez. She is survived by her husband and daughter, said Stoebe.

Agents recovered Ariacne’s phone and found a series of messages between her and her husband, who she called “Gordito.” In the messages, she describes being given the “costume” by smugglers, which includes camouflage clothing, including carpet shoes meant to make their footprints hard to track. She told her husband they would take a longer route because “it is safer,” and in her last message, dated Feb. 12, 2021 she asked her husband to “pray a lot so we do well and we can hold on.”

In 2021, the remains of at least 18 people were recovered in remote regions of Cochise County, including a 16-year-old boy who died just south of Highway 80 from exposure, according to Humane Borders data.

During the trial, prosecutors introduced thousands
of text and voice messages showing Dessens-Romero continued to smuggle people into the United States, at times acting a driver and picking up people near Douglas, Ariz. In other messages, he recruited drivers to smuggle people through Cochise County, and he also attempted to sell a gun to a man who said he needed a weapon to “kill anyone causing trouble” during smuggling pickups. 

Dessens-Romero was arrested in
Tennessee while transporting two people on June 30, 2021. 

Dessens-Romero’s defense attorney Isabel Michaela Amsel disputed the prosecutors’ assessment of her client’s actions. She described his upbringing in the Colonia La Ladrillera neighborhood of Agua Prieta, and his father, who was a “violent alcoholic.” Amsel said when Ariacne fell ill, he picked her up and carried her, and he tried to give her water, Gatorade and food.

“Never once did Jesus suggest abandoning the deceased in the desert; that decision was made by her sisters,” wrote Amsel. “The government’s sentencing memorandum portrays Jesus as being completely selfish and lacking all compassion; however, Jesus was the only member of this group who provided the deceased with any meaningful assistance.”

She added he asked Ariacne’s family to remove the Facebook post because “any unwanted attention brought upon cartels can be met with dangerous consequences, and Jesus was protecting the family and their identity by seeking to have them remove the Facebook post.”

Case ‘a warning’

“Human smugglers profit from the exploitation of migrants and routinely expose them to violence, injury, and death,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a statement about the case. Garland said the sentence “shows the Justice Department will continue to hold accountable these smugglers and the criminal networks that abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants.”

“Alien smugglers care only about the money to be made and not about the human beings whose lives they endanger,” said U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino. “Unfortunately, one young woman’s desire for a better life in the United States cost her her life due to the greed and recklessness of Dessens-Romero. This case should serve as a warning to other smugglers and the transnational smuggling organizations they work for: my office and our law enforcement partners will be undaunted in our efforts to bring you to justice.”

Dessens-Romero’s prosecution was because of Joint Task Force Alpha, officials said. 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.

Earlier this year, the task force was credited with leading the case against a “high-level” smuggling coordinator.

HSI agents in Douglas led the investigation, with help from the Fort Huachuca Army Criminal Investigation Division, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, HSI’s Nashville office, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The United States Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, handled the prosecution.