Area witness brought down ‘coyote’ engaged in extortion around migrants being trafficked over the border

Photograph by Erick Zapjac

By Scott Thomas Anderson

A Sacramento County resident who’d hired human smugglers to bring his relatives up from Mexico eventually turned to law enforcement for help after the “coyotes” started demanding more money and threatening to disappear with his loved ones – all while making “proof of life” videos on their phones.

According to court filings, a joint investigation into the saga began on September 28, 2022, when that witness came forward the Los Rios School District Police Department, an agency tasked with safety on community college campuses from Sacramento to Placerville. The man revealed to Los Rios police that he’d hired individuals, who he referred to as “coyotes,” to bring his sister-in-law and a family friend to the area from Mexico. However, he continued, he was getting really worried.

The witness explained that he’d negotiated a specific price up-front with the smugglers. After his relatives were safely in Sacramento, the witness was supposed to give the shadowy body-runners an additional $1,300. The witness explained that he was able to monitor the caravan’s progress across the border, and through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, by staying in touch with “a smuggling coordinator.” The man’s sister-in-law and friend did eventually make it to the Capital City.

But then there was a big problem.

Mateo Gomez Gonzalez, the chief “coyote” involved with transporting the migrants, suddenly refused to safely deliver them unless the witness paid him an additional $5,200. The witness was told that if he didn’t pay the extra funds, then Gomez would immediately head north to Oregon with his smuggled relatives in-tow. Worried he’d never see them again, the witness turned to local police, ultimately filing two missing persons reports.

That triggered to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security getting involved.

Within 24-hours of Los Rios police being contacted, a broader law enforcement team was planning an operation. Special Agent Joseph Rawley, assigned to Homeland Security’s Sacramento office, detailed in an affidavit what happened next: The witness agreed to meet the coyotes at a gas station in the tiny town of Dunnigan along Interstate 5. The rendezvous spot was in a patch of Yolo County that’s about 11 miles south of Arbuckle. Fewer than 1,500 people live there.

The smugglers showed up to the gas station. Instead of the witness meeting them, it was law enforcement who rolled in. The officers saw that Mateo Gomez Gonzalez was behind the wheel of a gray Honda Pilot. And there were other people in the car, too.

“The vehicle also contained [the witness’s friend and sister-in-law], as well as two additional passengers: Sergio Orozco and Miguel Ramirez, all of whom were eventually identified as natives and citizens of Mexico, with no immigration status in the United States,” Rawley wrote in his report. “At the gas station, [the witness’s sister-in-law] was upset and in distress. She advised Spanish-speaking law enforcement that she wanted to be with her family and began to cry.”

Investigators on-scene determined that she and witness’s friend had been brought up from Veracruz, Mexico, roughly five days before. They had traveled with a larger group of migrants through the desert and crossed the border at Ciudad Juarez into El Paso.

“They were transported blindfolded to several houses along the way in their journey to California,” Rawley noted. “[They] stated that Gomez was the driver for the later portion of the trip, beginning in Albuquerque, New Mexico … Gomez instructed the passengers to turn off their cell phones … Gomez would not allow the passengers to walk alway freely from the vehicle, but rather would order the passengers back into the vehicle.”

The special agent added, “Gomez told [the witness’s sister-in-law] she should be more grateful that he isn’t bad, and that there are other people who are worse.”   

According to federal prosecutors, when law enforcement searched Gomez’s cell phone, they found evidence that he had intentions around false imprisonment and extortion.

“[Gomez] recorded videos of the passengers of the vehicle, each stating their name, a code word, and the amount of money owed,” Rawley documented. “In one such video, Passenger 1 states her name, that the original amount owed was $1,300 for both passengers, but now the required amount was $2,600 [each]. In my training and experience, I understand these short videos to be ‘proof of life’ videos that smuggling operations commonly send to paying family members.” 

Mateo Gomez Gonzalez reportedly confessed to being a trafficker, acknowledging that he’d brought other migrants to Los Angeles, San Jose and Oakland before arriving in Sacramento. Two weeks ago, he was found guilty in federal court of unlawful transportation of noncitizens without status in the United States and sentenced to 12 months in prison.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warns that human smuggling from Mexico into the American West is rife with danger and abuses for those crossing.

“While there are no real statistics available, it has been estimated that 1 out of 10 persons may die during their journey, and 5 out of 10 in remote areas,” the UNODC detailed in a comprehensive report on the subject. “The cost of human smuggling of migrants has become heavier with the involvement of drug cartels … Testimony of migrants show that most migrants suffer severe psychological and/or physical abuse during their journey. Some are tortured, some die; sexual abuse of women seems to be almost systemic.”

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