A federal judge today sentenced a Salvadoran and a Mexican each to maximum five-year prison terms for their roles in an ill-fated alien sumuggling scheme in July that left 13 Salvadoran immigrants, including several young women, dead of exposure in the harsh Arizona desert.
Elias Nunez Guardado, 26, of El Salvador and Meteo Preciado Navarro, 54, of Mexico, pleaded guilty to a federal alien smuggling charge. Both men were among 14 survivors of a group fo aliens and guides who became lost during a July 4 weekend desert trek into the 516-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in a remote section of southeastern Arizona. Authorities said both men worked for Carlos Rivera, organizer of the operation, who died in the scorching desert.
A third smuggler, Santos Elias Flores of El Salvador, pleaded innocent and was convicted of one conspiracy and seven smuggling counts earlier this month. He will be sentenced Nov. 3 and could receive a five-year prison sentence and a $2,000 fine for each count. Survivors of the ordeal testified against him at his trial.
The sentences are not expected to be appealed.
Pima County authorities in September ruled the desert deaths were accidental. Their investigation contradicted earlier press reports that the group was abandoned by their guides. At least one ringleader tried to attract aid and attention by setting bonfires in the area, county authorities said.
"We have no physical evidence that any of the survivors, including the guides and organizers of the smuggling attempt, committed any crime other than being illegal aliens," homicide Sgt. Dan Abbate told reporters last month in Tucson.
During the trial of Flores, the survivors testified they answered advertisements in Salvadoran newspapers that offered "excursions to the U.S." Each paid $1,200 to travel from El Salvador to Los Angeles. They were promised a free second try to enter the United States illegally if the first attempt failed. The 42 Salvadorans in the original group split into three smaller groups with two crossing at Lukeville, Ariz., July 3 and the third, led by Flores, entering the United States near Yuma, Ariz., July 4. Flores' group was apprehended by border patrol agents.
Twenty-seven of the Salvadorans who made it across the border became disoriented in the barren desert and wandered without sufficient food or water for several days in temperatures as high as 120 degrees. Search crews eventually found some of the 13 dead huddled under small mesquite bushes in a final attempt to find relief from the heat. Survivors said they drank deodorant, toilet water and their own urine to stay alive.
The legal fate of the Salvadoran survivors still is uncertain. James Martin, assistant district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Phoenix , said their case is being handled like other alien cases and that deportation hearings will soon be held.
The Salvadorans have been released on bond and are in the custody of sponsoring families in Arizona and California. Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini has asked President Carter to grant them amnesty and permanent residency status in the United States.
"The White House has not responded affirmatively to the request and has decided to let the immigration proceeding run its natural course," said Bob Haynes, DeConcini's press secretary. "The president can intervene anywhere along the line. They are avoiding entering into the case in a summary fashion."