Everett man arrested for smuggling immigrants in freight trains

Federal authorities arrested two men on charges of smuggling people across the U.S.-Canadian border, then harboring them in Everett hotels.

Everett

EVERETT — Two men used Everett hotels to harbor noncitizens from Canada before transporting them to Oregon and California, according to charges filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle this last week.

Federal prosecutors charged Juan Pablo Cuellar-Medina, 35, of Everett, and Jesus Ortiz-Plata, 45, of Independence, Oregon, on Friday with conspiracy to commit illegal transportation of a noncitizen. Prosecutors allege the two men smuggled people across the U.S.-Canadian border by hiding them in freight trains.

“Being locked in a freight train car is dangerous — there is no control over the heat, cold, or ventilation, and people can be injured or killed by shifting freight,” U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman reportedly said in a press release.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, the defendants face up to 10 years in prison.

From September to December 2022, U.S. Border Patrol agents in Whatcom County detained undocumented noncitizens along the Canadian border multiple times, with alleged ties to a smuggler known as “Chuy,” according to court documents.

Another detainee had messages on her phone about smuggling arrangements from a “Juan Pablo,” charging papers say.

In July, border agents in Blaine stopped a minivan with seven undocumented immigrants and two U.S. citizens, charging papers say. One of the U.S. citizens told officers they worked for “Chuy,” who told them when and where to pick clients up. They picked up immigrants for Chuy at least three times for $500 per person.

The suspect reportedly told investigators Chuy was part of a smuggling organization in Canada that commonly used freight trains to get clients across the border. Chuy’s associates drove people from Whatcom County to Everett, where they would stay in hotels and apartments before traveling south, according to the charges.

During an X-ray security check in August, U.S. Customs identified 29 undocumented noncitizens hidden in a rail car loaded with bulk plastic pellets, according to charging papers. Several people told officers they had made arrangements with Chuy.

Investigators obtained a phone number for “Chuy.” It reportedly belonged to Ortiz-Plata.

In November 2023, Customs officers stopped another train with 13 undocumented noncitizens, the charges say. One of the suspects reportedly paid Chuy $8,000 to transport him to Oregon.

A federal judge granted a warrant to track Ortiz-Plata’s phone. The phone data showed Ortiz-Plata frequently driving from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, according to court documents.

Around 10 p.m. May 22, two men in Canada reportedly paid $4,000 to smugglers to take them to Portland. A man picked them up from a bus stop in Canada and drove to a train station where another man was waiting for them, court documents say. The man at the train station directed the two men to climb aboard the train and hide in the voids in the rail cars.

They rode the train for two hours before Cuellar-Medina — who was later identified as “Juan Pablo” — drove them to an apartment on Everett Mall Way.

Around 9:45 a.m. May 23, authorities located Ortiz-Plata on I-5 near Lynnwood, charging papers say. Investigators determined he was traveling north from Portland. They followed him until he pulled into the Everett Mall Way apartment. Cuellar-Medina and the two men walked out and got into Ortiz-Plata’s car.

Authorities waited outside and detained all four of them, then took the other two undocumented immigrants to their office in Ferndale for questioning.

It was unclear if Ortiz-Plata or Cuellar-Medina had previous criminal history.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently announced Canadians would no longer be allowed to cross onto U.S. soil at Peace Arch Park without going through a border crossing, according to reporting by Cascadia Daily News.

The decision to revoke Canadian access — a longstanding international zone that symbolized peace between the two countries — came as part of a crackdown on human smuggling via the park.

Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; maya.tizon@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @mayatizon.

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