Accused smuggler charged over US crash

·1-min read

A Mexican national has been charged by US authorities with organising a human smuggling operation that led to the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants in a highway crash.

Jose Cruz Noguez, 47, a legal permanent US resident from Mexicali, was arrested on Monday as he crossed into the United States, federal prosecutors said in a statement.

He made his first court appearance on Tuesday on human smuggling charges carrying a maximum penalty of 30 years prison.

According to criminal complaint against him, Cruz oversaw the ill-fated March 2 smuggling attempt, recruiting drivers, collecting payments and arranging for a hole to be cut in a border fence through which two utility vehicles crammed with migrants slipped into California.

One, packed with 25 people, collided with a tractor-trailer at a highway junction outside the farming community of Holtsville.

Thirteen individuals, including the SUV driver, perished and 12 survivors were hospitalised, authorities said.

Border patrol agents separately found 19 migrants from the second SUV huddled in nearby brush after their vehicle inexplicably caught fire.

Prosecutors said both eight-passenger SUV's, stripped of all but two seats to allow more people to be crammed inside, were part of the same smuggling operation.

Prosecutors said authorities were led to Cruz by another suspected smuggler arrested two weeks after the deadly crash in an unrelated incident.

At investigators' behest, the associate recorded a phone conversation with Cruz in which, according to prosecutors, Cruz confirmed his involvement in the deadly event.

He allegedly referred to his migrant customers as "pollos" - the Spanish word for chickens - and said the driver would earn $US28,000 ($A36,000).