November 17, 2008 - 7:19 PM
McALLEN -- A Wal-Mart truck driver will face federal charges for allegedly trying to sneak illegal immigrants into the country in a company tractor-trailer.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Alejandro Hernandez, 50, after finding four Mexican nationals locked in the back of his 18-wheeler, according to court filings obtained Monday.
Investigators believe Hernandez made at least five similar smuggling trips through the Falfurrias checkpoint in the last year and was working with another known coyote.
"At Wal-Mart we expect our associates to conduct themselves in a lawful and ethical manner," company spokesman Don Fogleman said. "This situation is of deep concern."
ICE agents began following Hernandez on Thursday after receiving a tip about his purported illegal activity, according to the criminal complaint filed in his case.
The truck driver delivered a load of merchandise to the Wal-Mart location at 2800 W. Nolana in McAllen and then drove his empty 18-wheeler to a truck stop along U.S. 281 in Edinburg.
There, he allegedly loaded the immigrants into his truck and proceeded toward Falfurrias with a 15-passenger van following behind. Authorities detained Hernandez and the van's driver, Leonor Gomez, 29, just south of the checkpoint.
Gomez admitted to smuggling immigrants after her arrest but insisted the Wal-Mart driver had been an unwitting conspirator, according to the complaint.
She said that she snuck the men and women into Hernandez's truck without his knowledge and planned to follow him to his destination and sneak them out.
But her mother, Santos Gomez Moreno, 61, was also arrested and said she had witnessed Hernandez and her daughter make smuggling trips on at least five occasions.
As of late Monday night, Hernandez and the Gomez women remained in federal custody. Each could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Hernandez's attorney Reynaldo Merino said he had not had a chance to meet with his client when reached for comment late Monday night.
Hernandez has been suspended without pay from his job pending the resolution of his case, Fogleman said.
"Wal-Mart has been in full cooperation with the investigation and we will continue to do so," he said.
Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.