The U.S. Border Patrol said Wednesday it thwarted a large-scale human trafficking operation that sought to bring 15 people from Guatemala and Mexico into the country illegally.
Three men are being held without bail, including the alleged driver, while the rest have been turned over to immigration authorities.
The bust occurred in Derby near the U.S.-Canadian border early Sunday.
Federal authorities allege a van with no license plates was spotted making several trips from a road near the border to a motel in Derby. Agents say they also saw several males on foot heading south from the border, indicating a possible human smuggling operation.
Border Patrol agents said they pulled the van over at the motel and found it contained six passengers, none of whom had legal status in the United States. Nine other people without legal status were found in the driver’s hotel room, authorities said.
According to a statement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Vermont’s U.S. attorney’s office, the driver, Hector Ramon Perez-Alvarado, 25, of Honduras, was charged with “transporting illegal aliens inside the United States.” He does not have legal permission to be in the United States, authorities said.
Two people were arrested on federal charges of re-entering the United States after previously being removed. They are Noe Perez-Ramirez, 33, and Alberto Alvarado-Castro, both of Mexico.
All three men appeared in federal court in Burlington on Wednesday and were detained without bail by Magistrate-Judge John M. Conroy. They are in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.
The others discovered were turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s division that handles enforcement and removal. Authorities said 11 of the people detained were Guatemalan citizens and four were from Mexico. One was a women; the rest were men.
A spokesperson for the Border Patrol said it was the first and biggest bust of its kind in recent memory.
“This is an extremely high number. No one remembers a group this large in the last five to 10 years. It’s unusual,” said Steven Cribby, who works in operations at the Border Patrol’s Swanton headquarters.
The Swanton sector secures the border between ports of entry in Vermont, New Hampshire and northeastern New York.
The charge of transporting illegal aliens is punishable by up to five years in jail for each person transported and a $250,000 fine for each person smuggled. Those convicted of re-entry violations face a maximum sentence of two years in jail and a $250,000 fine.