A man accused of spearheading an operation to smuggle people into the U.S. at the border of North Dakota and Canada has been charged in federal court.
Darwin Catarero-Sanchez is charged with bringing people into the country illegally and harboring them. He made his first court appearance Monday and was assigned a public defender but was not asked to enter a plea.
Neil Fulton, head of the federal public defender's office for the Dakotas, did not respond to phone and email requests for comment Tuesday.
Catarero-Sanchez and seven other people accused of entering the country unlawfully were arrested about 1:30 a.m. on April 6, according to court documents. A U.S. Border Patrol agent apprehended the suspects while they were walking along a highway near Sherwood, in northwestern North Dakota.
Authorities said Catarero-Sanchez arranged transportation for the group from Montreal. Witnesses said he agreed to smuggle one person into the U.S. for $2,000 and another for $1,500.
Austin Skero II, chief Border Patrol agent for the Grand Forks sector, said the arrests were the result of cooperation among federal, local and Canadian law enforcement authorities.
"The assistance of our border communities is critical to our success," Skero said in a statement.
Border Patrol agents detained a total of 11 people in the case. Three people — Carlos Ayala-Bonilla, Ericka Vasquez-Barerra and Sahin Iyibas — are charged with illegal entry.
Vasquez-Barerra told authorities she has known Catarero-Sanchez for nine years and both of them lived in Montreal. She said she wanted to visit family in New Jersey and agreed to pay Catarero-Sanchez $1,500 to get into the U.S., investigators said.
Vasquez-Barerra and Iyibas told police that Catarero-Sanchez and another man took turns driving a group of five people from Montreal to Carnduff, Saskatchewan, where they checked into a hotel. Catarero-Sanchez then led people around the port of entry at Sherwood in the middle of the night.
The investigation led agents to a residence in Minot, where others were taken into custody on allegations they crossed the border illegally.
"The security of our northern border remains a top priority of our office," Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said in a statement.