U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted an operation in Dexter Monday, based on information about a possible shed on a fifth-wheel trailer where people smuggled into the U.S. were being held.
Tomas Miguel Mateo, 38, who was at the scene and part of a smuggling group, was arrested and faces charges of “harboring aliens” and entering the U.S. after being deported, according to documents provided by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico.
Court documents say two individuals from Guatemala and three from El Salvador are material witnesses for the prosecution in Mateo’s trial.
After he was read his Miranda warnings, Mateo told agents he was forced by members of a smuggling group to house and feed the people. Mateo, who is from Guatemala, said he had been smuggled into the U.S. by the organization, but did not provide any names to agents, according to the documents.
Mateo said he had been living in the trailer at the location for three months.
Officers with Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) — a division of ICE — and a special agent from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) — an investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — executed the operation near Mile Marker 93 on Highway 285 in Dexter, the documents state.
Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington said Tuesday deputies received an agency assist call at 10 a.m. from ICE who were conducting an operation at 7348 SE Main St. in Dexter.
He said officers from Hagerman and Dexter police departments were also at the scene, where ICE agents discovered 70 malnourished people from Guatemala and El Salvador — that ranged from 17 to 24 years of age — packed into a shed.
Documents state the operation was conducted based on information collected in December 2018 by HSI officials in Las Cruces about an “alien stash house” in Dexter.
ERO officers and an HSI special agent Monday went to an area near the property that had two residences on it: a single-wide mobile home and a fifth-wheel trailer with a wooden structure built onto it.
Agents contacted the occupants of the mobile home where the owner of the property was present, and later gave agents consent to walk around the property, according to documents.
Agents then encountered a male outside the fifth-wheel trailer, later identified as Mateo. He told officers he was renting the fifth-wheel trailer from the property owners.
Scattered clothing and hundreds of pairs of shoes for men, women and children that varied in size were found by agents near the fifth-wheel trailer shed.
Documents state Mateo did not consent to a search of the trailer. A half-hour after they spoke with Mateo, agents observed several people exit the fifth-wheel trailer shed.
Agents approached the individuals seen fleeing from the fifth-wheel trailer and identified themselves as federal agents, and many of those individuals fled the area, according to documents.
People found in the fifth-wheel trailer shed were subsequently interviewed by agents and it was learned they had entered the U.S. illegally, according to documents.
The individuals found in the shed later told agents they were at the location for three to five days. They told agents that a group of 15 others departed from the location a week before, the documents state.
Mateo oversaw the location and decided when people could eat, go to the bathroom or make telephone calls, the documents continued.
The people who were being held told agents Mateo forced them to take their shoes off before they would enter the fifth-wheel shed and that Mateo would take money from them.
Mateo told agents he was directed by individuals in the smuggling organization to take money from those who were held. He told agents he would only confiscate coins and not bills, according to documents.
He said he took the coins because if anyone who was held was apprehended by police and had foreign currency on them, immigration officials would discover they were in the country illegally.
Mateo was found with a cell phone and two wallets containing large amounts of money. He told agents he was not making any money for holding and feeding the people, but he was in possession of $1,230 in U.S. currency.
He claimed the cell phone found on him was “for everyone to use,” according to documents.
Mateo gave agents permission to search the cell phone because he needed to get his contacts from the phone, which included his mother’s number.
The Roswell Daily Record contacted the ICE Office of Public Affairs. An individual with the office said additional information about the case was being prepared, but none was received before press deadline.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at email@example.com.