Human smuggling: In first case after '06 state law passed, federal prosecutors took over

Most human smuggling cases in Colorado are handled by state prosecutors using a 2006 state law -- the effectiveness of which is questioned in this week's feature story, "Disappearing Act."

But human smuggling remains a federal crime, as well -- and in cases where there are aggravating factors, such as deaths from a van crash, federal prosecutors will step in. That's what happened in the case of 26-year-old Jose Francisco Franco-Rodriguez.

Franco-Rodriguez was the first person charged with human smuggling after the state law was enacted in 2006. But it didn't take long for the feds to swoop in and take the case.

Why? In addition to smuggling, Franco-Rodriguez was charged with causing the deaths of four of the illegal immigrants he was transporting through Colorado.

On November 28, 2006, court documents show that Franco-Rodriguez was driving eastbound on I-70 with a minivan full of fourteen passengers, all of whom were illegal aliens. The passengers, like Franco-Rodriguez himself, were from Mexico. They had crossed the border and been taken to safe houses in Phoenix and Tucson, where they were held until their families paid smugglers between $1,700 and $3,000 each. Once those debts were paid, they were told to board a van driven by Franco-Rodriguez.

The van left Phoenix at 9 p.m. on November 27, bound for destinations in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Upon their arrival, the passengers were instructed to pay Franco-Rodriguez an additional $500 each.

Franco-Rodriguez drove all night. When he crossed into Colorado, it began to snow, and according to court documents, "the highway became snow-packed, slushy and icy." At 1:43 p.m., near Idaho Springs, Franco-Rodriguez lost control of the van. It crashed, rolled and landed right-side-up facing west in the eastbound lane of I-70.

Franco-Rodriguez fled the scene. He left behind ten wounded passengers and four who eventually died: sixteen-year-old Giovanni Leucadio-Lorenzo, seventeen-year-old Jose Balderas-Luna, 26-year-old David Florencio-Morales and 22-year-old Yanin Cuenca-Ocampo, whose husband told police that she was pregnant.

Franco-Rodriguez was found hiding in a storage shed about four hours later. According to a newspaper report at the time, he was initially charged with 46 criminal counts, including fourteen counts of human smuggling. "He's in very deep trouble," Idaho Springs Police Chief David Wohlers told the Denver Post two days after the crash.

"We got a very clear message from the legislature this year that if you do get caught (smuggling people) you are going to pay a very serious penalty," Sergeant Jeff Goodwin, a spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol, told the Post. At the time, the state patrol's Immigration Enforcement Unit, which is authorized to enforce certain sections of federal immigration law, hadn't been created yet, though lawmakers had passed a law to do so.

Though the Post called Franco-Rodriguez "the first person held under a new Colorado human smuggling law," federal prosecutors soon took over the case. Using their power to hold witnesses -- a power state prosecutors don't have -- they deposed nine of the surviving passengers before turning them over to ICE to be deported.

The feds also added another charge to Franco-Rodriguez's list, a charge that only federal prosecutors can levy: illegally re-entering the country. Records showed that Franco-Rodriguez had been deported a month and a half earlier, on October 4, 2006.

On August 2, 2007, about eight months after the crash, Franco-Rodriguez agreed to a plea deal offered by prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to one count of transporting illegal aliens within the United States resulting in death, and one count of illegally re-entering the country. He was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison -- a sentence longer than any of those given to smugglers charged under state law.

More from our Immigration archive: "Human smuggling: Defense attorneys question whether law is too harsh on alleged smugglers."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar