ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - A 20-year-old Texas man was convicted in absentia Thursday of threatening to maim and kill family members of people in the U.S. who hired him to smuggle them into the country, including an 8-year-old girl.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office assisted the FBI's investigation involving the 8-year-old girl and her mother, who was listed as an illegal immigrant living in Florida.
Luis Gerardo Betancourt was indicted in July on charges related to a human smuggling ring that would take payment to smuggle victims’ family members into the country.
The Florida victim paid a “coyote” to smuggle her 8-year-old daughter into the U.S. from Mexico on Nov. 30, 2015, a criminal complaint against Betancourt said.
She paid $17,000 for the job but the next day the woman received a call demanding $18,000 more from a man claiming to have brought her daughter to the U.S.
When she could not pay, the man told the woman “to do whatever she needed to do in order to get the money and if (she) did not, they would kill (her) daughter,” the complaint said.
In a call from a phone that was later found in Betancourt’s possession, the woman was asked “if she wanted to hear her daughter scream, and threatened to cut off her ear or fingers,” the complaint said.
The woman contacted the FBI on Dec. 4, 2015, and agents were able to track one of the callers to a residence in Pharr, Texas.
Bettancourt was found in the home and was taken to the FBI office in McAllen, Texas, where he told investigators that he was not involved in any illegal activity involving human trafficking, court documents said.
Betancourt was arrested and charged with numerous counts in connection with the smuggling ring and appeared in court on March 7 for jury selection in his trial.
Betancourt did not show up for a March 21 hearing, though, and has been on the run since then, officials said.
After a five-day trial, which proceeded in his absence, Betancourt was convicted Thursday of conspiracy to commit-hostage taking and conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens.
It took the jury less than three hours to make its decision.
All the hostages taken over the course of the conspiracy, including the 8-year-old girl, were found and freed on Dec. 8, 2015.
When he is sentenced on June 8, Betancourt will face a sentence of life in prison.
Anyone with information on his whereabouts is asked to contact the U.S. Marshals Service in McAllen, Texas, at 956-618-8025.
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