April 17, 2012 -- A Texas prosecutor says he plans to try a 15-year-old driver who allegedly crashed a van full of illegal aliens , killing nine, as an adult to "send a message" about a "growing trend" in which smugglers use juveniles to smuggle immigrants.
"I want to try to be as aggressive as the law allows me," Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra told ABC News. "You participate in this and this much damage is caused, we're going to try to send you to prison."
The 15-year-old boy, a U.S. citizen whom police have not identified because he is a juvenile, was allegedly recruited by so-called "coyotes," or human smugglers, to drive a group of Mexican nationals from the border region of Texas farther north, according to a criminal complaint filed last week against several other suspects in the smuggling plot.
The driver faces nine counts of murder, as well as 17 counts of human smuggling and one count of evading arrest. The juvenile cried and expressed remorse when he appeared before a judge at a probable cause hearing Monday, according to The Associated Press. Guerra says that he will petition a judge to have the defendant tried as an adult.
According to the criminal complaint, when Border Patrol agents pulled the minivan over during a traffic stop last Tuesday ten miles west of McAllen, one of the passengers jumped from the car and ran. When agents pursued him, the driver then peeled away, beginning a short, high-speed chase that ended when the van flipped over, killing nine of the 16 remaining occupants and injuring the rest.
All the passengers, including the one who had fled on foot and was later captured, were determined to be undocumented aliens. The driver was found at his home and taken into custody Thursday.
At least four passengers have been detained as witnesses, and local officials worked with federal investigators to arrest six other people allegedly involved in the smuggling operation.
A Palmview,Texas police detective told the AP that the teen defendant claimed in court Monday that he had driven the van because unidentified individuals had threatened to kill his family if he didn't.
According to Guerra, there's a "growing trend" for coyotes to recruit juveniles, because of the expectation that juveniles won't face stiff charges if caught.
While coyotes have been known to use juveniles for many years, Guerra is not alone in believing the phenomenon is on the upswing. Jonathan Richards, special agent in charge of the Santa Teresa, New Mexico Border Patrol station told the Albuquerque Journal in 2011 that finding juvenile smugglers was once infrequent but had "become quite prolific."
Richards told the Journal that one 12-year-old girl was arrested in January 2011 for allegedly leading Mexican citizens across the border. After serving an eight-day sentence, she was arrested in May 2011 when she was again found allegedly leading immigrants into the U.S.
Guerra said it's easy for young people to get caught up in the business.
"If they're desperate and they don't think they're going anywhere, one of the more lucrative jobs is gun-running, drug-running or illegal alien transporting," he said.
"They think they're bulletproof but they're not," he added.