Second Man Charged in Deaths of Smuggled Chinese Migrants

He is accused of recruiting human smugglers via help-wanted ads on Craigslist

SAN DIEGO – Saad Ali Awan, a U.S. citizen living in El Centro, appeared in federal court today to face charges that he was part of a conspiracy to illegally transport three Chinese nationals into the U.S. from Mexico who were later found dead in the trunk of a smuggler’s BMW.

According to a federal complaint unsealed today, Awan placed help-wanted ads on Craigslist to recruit human smugglers. Neil Edwin Valera responded to one of those ads and as a result became the smuggler of the Chinese nationals who perished due to heat and asphyxiation in the trunk.

Valera was the first to be charged in this case; Awan is the second. Valera pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison in connection with the deaths. Awan was arrested yesterday at his home in El Centro. He was charged with Conspiracy to Encourage Aliens to Enter Resulting in Death and Bringing in Aliens without Presentation for Financial Gain.

According to the complaint charging Awan, agents and officers investigating the deaths of the Chinese nationals tracked cell phone and email activity to Awan and found that he was associated with at least 14 smuggling incidents that occurred in the Southern District of California from July 4, 2019 to July 11, 2020.

According to court documents, San Diego police received an emergency 911 call on August 11, 2019 from a person reporting a foul odor and blood dripping from a suspicious vehicle with Texas license plates parked near the 2100 block of Jaime Avenue in San Diego.

San Diego police officers discovered a 1999 silver BMW with a Texas license plate. The officers lifted the trunk and found what initially appeared to be two deceased Asian females. Homicide detectives found an additional victim, an Asian male, pressed up against the rear wall of the trunk. A witness said the car was first noticed two days earlier and no one was seen coming or going.

Video recordings show the same car crossing into the United States from Mexico on August 9, 2019, at the San Ysidro port of entry at 3:14 p.m. Valera was the registered owner of the vehicle. Valera was arrested soon after. According to the complaint charging Awan, Valera told federal agents during his post-arrest interview that he became a human smuggler after responding to a Craigslist ad.

That ad was later traced back to Awan. Valera ultimately agreed to smuggle an unknown number of Chinese women into the U.S. in the trunk of his BMW for $6,000. Valera’s cell phone records indicated he had hundreds of contacts that were traced back to Awan and another conspirator.

“Human smugglers do not act alone, and we will continue to prosecute offenders who participate at all levels of the criminal organizations responsible for these dangerous crimes,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “We are determined to prevent more tragic and senseless deaths.”  Grossman commended AUSA Michael Wheat and the agents who diligently investigated this case.

“This is a tragic event that could have been avoided if people were more aware of the dangers of being smuggled into the U.S. by criminal organizations that value profit over human life,” said Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) San Diego Acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “HSI and its law enforcement partners will continue to arrest, prosecute and bring these unscrupulous smugglers and criminal organization to justice.

San Diego Sector Border Patrol’s Chief Patrol Agent, Aaron Heitke affirms, “We are greatful for the tenacity, persistence, and hard work that our law enforcement partners have demonstrated over the past several months.  Their collaborative efforts with the United States Attorney’s office have resulted in the arrest of Saad Ali Awan, who is alleged to be a prolific smuggler within our area of responsibility.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work jointly with our investigative partners to help bring individuals to justice, identifying and arresting those involved in this tragic case,” said Pete Flores, Director of Field Operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego.

Awan will next appear in federal court on August 31, 2021 for a detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Montenegro in El Centro.

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