Fake nursing home was used to smuggle illegal immigrants

Border Patrol agents were miffed when they saw an ambulance roll up to a Texas highway checkpoint in August 2022 and discovered an illegal immigrant being smuggled inside.

Now, nearly two years later, authorities say that ambulance was part of a broader smuggling operation that involved a fake assisted living facility that was supposedly moving patients from one location to another. In reality, the patients on the gurneys were illegal immigrants, according to investigators.


“To use our taxpayer-funded health care system as a cover for assisting illegal immigration is completely disgraceful,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton. “As shown in this instance, exploitation of public programs for illegal alien trafficking will be met with the full force of the law.”

Authorities tipped to the scam when an ambulance showed up at the checkpoint outside of Falfurrias. The checkpoint guards one of the routes from the Rio Grande Valley north to San Antonio and Houston.

The driver, Ricardo Garza, said he was transferring a patient. But things seemed off. The patient had multiple masks on but no machines were monitoring the person, and there was just one EMT in the vehicle along with Mr. Garza, the driver.

Agents detained the ambulance for a full immigration inspection, and the patient admitted he was a Mexican citizen in the U.S. illegally, was in good health and wasn’t a patient at any clinic.

The EMT later told agents she had been suspicious of the operation, and she had made four or five previous runs to transfer patients who she also believed were illegal immigrants. She said she got paid $50 each time, with the cash tucked inside a goody bag of snacks. Her cellphone also had a contact for “Coyote,” which is border slang for a smuggler.


Authorities later identified Mr. Cantu-Trevino as the operator of the fake assisted living facility.

“Cantu-Trevino orchestrated a scheme using a fictitious assisted living facility as a front and Skyline EMS ambulances to illegally transport individuals past U.S. border checkpoints,” Mr. Paxton’s office said.

Mr. Cantu-Trevino was arrested last month. Both he and Mr. Garza have pleaded not guilty.

Skyline EMS is based in Mission, Texas.

The firm said it never suspected it was being duped into smuggling.

“Skyline EMS was an unknowing participant and was in no way aware of what Mr. Cantu’s intentions [were] or scheme or his daily business practice for his business,” said Johnny Cordero, chief operations officer at the firm.

He said his outfit regularly contracts to transport for assisted living facilities and Mr. Cantu provided paperwork on purported patients, just as other facilities did.


He said they cooperated with the Border Patrol’s investigation and said agents assured them it’s not the job of an ambulance to verify the immigration status of patients.

Highway checkpoints serve as a sort of secondary border wall, catching thousands of illegal immigrants and drug shipments that smugglers got past agents and officers at the actual border and are trying to take deeper into the U.S.

This is not the first time an ambulance has been used to try to fool checkpoint agents.

In July 2019, agents at the same Falfurrias checkpoint encountered an ambulance and the driver was unable to produce his credentials or paperwork on the supposed patient. When agents looked in the back they found six illegal immigrants including one pretending to be a patient, with an IV and an oxygen mask


Smugglers have also been caught using fake delivery trucks, bogus construction vehicles and even a coffin to try to sneak illegal immigrants past checkpoints.

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