BEEVILLE – It is not known yet just how long a 19-year-old Honduras man was dead before smugglers left his body along Ridgeway Lane Friday, May 31.
The man, identified as Juan Orlando Perez Lopez, was found that afternoon, unresponsive and propped against a fence alongside this road in southern Bee County.
Lt. Adam Levine, with the Bee County Sheriff’s Office, said this is less than 100 yards from where another person was found, a victim of human smuggling, only a few years ago.
Sheriff Alden Southmayd said his office received this call early in the afternoon.
“Investigators believe that the victim died during transport and was left at the location by others traveling with him,” the sheriff said.
Both Justices of the Peace Abel Suniga and Mike Showalter were called to the scene to assist and pronounce death.
“At this time, the Bee County Sheriff’s Office is working with the Nueces County Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the cause of death,” Southmayd said. “Investigators are also working with the Honduran Consulate to locate and notify the family of the victim.”
Levine said he received a call at 6 p.m. from the man’s family in Tennessee who had been contacted by their family in Honduras.
“We are following up now to see how the family in Honduras found out,” Levine said.
This case will likely be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
Commodity of a smuggler
Southmayd said that leaving a dead person like this is the practice of smugglers.
“These people have been on the road for three or four days,” said Ronnie Jones, chief deputy. Often, they have not been given food or fresh water during that stretch.
To the smugglers, the illegal immigrants are nothing more than a commodity.
Smugglers change route
Smugglers are adapting their methods.
“Bee County for a while was a hot spot,” Levine said. “They knew we were working a humanitarian mission to save lives.”
Because of that extra effort by law enforcement, smugglers changed their ways.
“They would go farther north to San Antonio to avoid Bee County,” Levine said.
And the drivers are now avoiding the highways, opting instead to take farm-to-market roads.
Thanks to funding from the state and federal officials, more deputies will be on the streets again this year watching for smugglers of both people and drugs.
Just recently the sheriff’s office was notified that it likely will receive an additional $200,000 in federal funding through Operation Stonegarden.
Normally, the sheriff’s office here joins with the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office receiving the federal money through that partnership.
This year, the county is expecting to receive the funding on its own.
Rise in smuggling
The days of the bailout — where 20 to 30 people flee from a stopped vehicle — are over.
“I think smuggling has picked up over the last few years,” the sheriff said. “The method has just changed.
“They do as much studying of us as we do of them.”
The smugglers also are no longer transporting people in larger numbers, opting instead to take three or four in a less conspicuous small car.
And, in most cases, those being smuggled are coming for work — an estimated 75 percent of illegal immigrants.
Of course, even they are often exploited.
Southmayd said he hears stories of business owners, even here, holding immigration visas.
“The owners will tell them they have to hold their visas while they are working there,” he said. If the employee tries to leave or doesn’t submit to their demands, they threaten to call authorities.
Unfortunately, the calls to law enforcement often come after the event occurs and the victims are long gone from the area.
“We have not had a case here reported that we could actually work,” the sheriff said.
Levine said he waits, though, for that call where he can help one such victim.
“Be anonymous,” he said to anyone calling. “Let me know where it is happening and not after the fact.
“I don’t care who the caller is. Just lead me in the right direction.”
Jason Collins is the editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 343-5221, or at media@mySouTex.com.