FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. -- Fourteen men from central and South America were found crammed into an SUV that was pulled over last month on Interstate 64 in southern Illinois, authorities said Wednesday.
A Lebanon police officer working with the Drug Enforcement Administration pulled over the SUV on Feb. 25 near New Baden for improper lane usage, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois said. The SUV had a temporary Texas license plate.
Agents from Homeland Security Investigations and Immigration and Customs Enforcement responded to the scene, with assistance from Lebanon and New Baden police. The SUV's passengers were in the seats and on the floor, with some hiding under a blanket in the back tailgate. They were taken into custody by ICE agents.
The driver, 20-year-old Domingo Tomas-Zacarias of Guatemala, is charged with human smuggling for allegedly transporting men between the ages of 16 and 34 years across an international border illegally for a fee. The federal public defender's office didn't immediately reply to a call seeking comment.
Authorities say seven of the passengers are facing up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine because they returned to the U.S. after being deported.
Investigators say the other six passengers entered the U.S. illegally at various times through Arizona or Texas but had never been deported. They remain in custody pending deportation proceedings.
Authorities allege in court documents that Tomas-Zacarias told federal agents he had been working in construction in Amarillo, Texas, where a man asked if he would like to bring some people to Louisville, Kentucky. They say Tomas-Zacarias said he wanted to do it because of his economic situation and that he was promised $800 when he returned to Texas.
Authorities say Tomas-Zacarias told investigators that he was afraid the SUV would be stopped because the weight of those inside made it appear overloaded.
It wasn't immediately known if any of the men in custody have legal representation.