McALLEN — A Mission man will forfeit over $88 million in illegal cigarettes-related equipment after he pleaded true to a smuggling charge earlier this week, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Southern District of Texas.
Jose Francisco Guerra, an 80-year-old Mission resident, pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling goods into the U.S. In exchange, the government agreed to dismiss the remaining charge against him, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, at the time of his sentencing.
Guerra, along with Luis Enrique Vazquez-De La Cruz and Juan Carlos Teran Arteaga, was implicated in a scheme to move illegal cigarettes from warehouses in the Rio Grande Valley into Mexico, according to the complaint filed against the trio.
According to the release, the investigation into Guerra revealed the cigarettes originated in a warehouse located in Hidalgo.
“Guerra controlled and operated that warehouse and facilitated the storage and sale of the cigarettes. Guerra was also found to be in control of another warehouse in McAllen. Both warehouses contained a combined total of 422,917,800 contraband cigarettes destined to be exported to Mexico,” the release stated.
Guerra was subsequently arrested Feb. 12, after federal agents discovered 800,000 pounds of adulterated, misbranded cigarettes stuffed inside 40 cases headed for Mexico.
On that date, federal agents were surveilling a warehouse in the 3900 block of West Ursula Avenue in McAllen, and watched as a white van sped away from the warehouse.
“The van left the area of the warehouse and began traveling at a high rate of speed as if it was trying to evade the surveillance team,” the document stated.
Agents subsequently approached Guerra, who was just arriving after leaving in a white van moments earlier.
“Guerra granted (agents) consent to conduct an inspection of the premises. Upon entering the warehouse, (agents) clearly observed 40 cases of unstamped cigarettes outside of the in-bond caged area,” the complaint stated. “(Agents) with the assistance of (task force officers) and a representative of the Government of Mexico Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT) conducted an inspection of the cigarettes in the warehouse.”
After agents arrested Guerra, he made statements admitting his involvement in a scheme to move the cigarettes into Mexico.
“Guerra stated he had been smuggling cigarettes to Mexico in increments of 40 cases (containing approximately 400,000 individual cigarettes) on a regular basis,” the complaint stated. “Guerra stated he was aware that it was illegal to smuggle cigarettes into Mexico.”
The 80-year-old man also admitted he had about 800,000 pounds of cigarettes in his warehouse and stated he planned to illegally smuggle all of them into Mexico.
Guerra’s cigarette case is the second such case in the last couple months.
Only days before, Teran, on Feb. 10, attempted to enter the U.S. through a port of entry.
Agents arrested Teran after they tied him to a Jan. 15 traffic stop of a trailer in Hidalgo County that resulted in the seizure of thousands of illegal cigarettes.
The driver of the trailer, Vazquez De La Cruz, gave the trooper two separate bills of lading, one in English purporting the cargo was used clothes, toys and purses, and the other bill of lading, written in Spanish, stated the cargo was cotton.
During the search, the trooper found 16,800 cigarettes within the trailer.
Teran admitted to agents he had provided Vazquez with the fake bills of lading for the cargo Vazquez presented to the DPS trooper on Jan. 15.
“Teran stated that he knew the trailer contained contraband cigarettes and that what he was doing was illegal. Teran, stated that he had worked with Vazquez to smuggle the cigarettes from the United States to Mexico,” the court documents state.
He further admitted that once the nearly 17,000 cigarettes were seized, he created additional fake documents in order to legitimize the cigarettes.
Teran, who has pleaded not guilty to one count of smuggling goods and one count of trafficking in contraband cigarettes, is scheduled for a jury trial beginning June 2, records show.
Additionally, Vazquez De La Cruz, facing two counts of the same two charges, pleaded not guilty in March, and faces a jury trial beginning July 7, records show.
Guerra, a licensed customs broker, who ran Victor M. Guerra Inc. in Hidalgo, will forfeit his license as part of the plea agreement.
Guerra, who remains free on a $30,000 bond, could receive a punishment of up to 10 years in prison at his sentencing hearing; currently scheduled for Aug. 13, records show.