updated 11/30/2004 9:39:16 PM ET 2004-12-01T02:39:16

Three people involved in the nation’s deadliest smuggling attempt were part of a scheme that treated immigrants “worse than cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse,” a prosecutor said Tuesday in opening statements.

The trial of Victor Jesus Rodriguez, Claudia Carrizales de Villa and Fredy Giovanni Garcia-Tobar is the first related to the May 2003 deaths of 19 illegal immigrants inside a tractor-trailer.

Prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez said the three were part of a smuggling ring that tried to transport a group of more than 70 immigrants from south Texas to Houston. But defense attorneys said the three had minimal involvement.

Estimated temperature: 173 degrees
Packed inside the nearly airless trailer, the immigrants began succumbing to stifling temperatures that authorities estimate reached 173 degrees. The trailer was abandoned at a truck stop, and authorities found 17 immigrants dead inside. Two died later.

The victims, including a 5-year-old Mexican boy, were from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic.

The defendants each face 58 counts of harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. If convicted, each could get up to life in prison.

Daniel Rodriguez said the defendants were part of a “criminal enterprise that treated people worse than cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.”

Victor Rodriguez, 38, is accused of picking up several immigrants who had arranged with his parents to be smuggled. Authorities say his parents ran one of the operation’s smuggling cells.

But Alberto Pullen, Victor Rodriguez’s attorney, said his client had little involvement. Victor Rodriguez admitted to dropping off three illegal immigrants to be smuggled at the request of his father.

“That is the extent of his involvement in this,” he said.

Cousin offers rebuttal
Rodriguez’s cousin, Antonio Gonzales, rebutted that, testifying he began to help in the smuggling operation when he was just 7, and that Rodriguez would “go with me to buy food, pick up (immigrants). He would bring food to harbor the illegals at different locations.” Gonzales’ mother is one of the 14 people indicted in the case.

Carrizales, 36, concealed immigrants in her apartment and fed them at a restaurant owned by the smuggling ringleader, Karla Patricia Chavez, who pleaded guilty in June, prosecutors said.

“My client was simply a cook in a taqueria,” said defense attorney Ali Fazel.

The prosecutor said Garcia-Tobar, a 25-year-old from Guatemala, worked with Chavez to help recruit truckers to haul the immigrants. But his attorney said Garcia-Tobar is connected to the case only because of his romantic relationship with the ringleader.

The trial of the man who allegedly drove the truck that hauled the immigrants and later abandoned it is set to go to trial Jan. 5, while the trial of another defendant is on hold. Five others previously pleaded guilty. Four were arrested in Mexico and face trial there.

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