CHEROKEE COUNTY, Texas — Editor's Note: The above video was published in October 2021.
A Houston woman was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison Tuesday for smuggling two dozen people who entered the U.S. illegally and was caught travelling through East Texas in 2021.
Maria Elizabeth Lopez, 48, entered a guilty plea on Aug. 18, 2022 to engaging in a conspiracy to transport certain aliens for commercial and private financial gain. She was then sentenced to 18 months Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
She was stopped by Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office deputies around 2 a.m. Oct. 3, 2021 in a Chevrolet Suburban on U.S. 69 at FM 84. Police said when deputies met with Lopez, who was driving, they found 24 passengers who had entered the country illegally.
An investigation showed Lopez was the only person in the vehicle who was in the U.S. legally. The sheriff’s office said the passengers came from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, and officers said she was taking them from Houston and driving them to Mississippi and Florida in exchange for payment.
According to court information, Lopez admitted during the investigation that she previously transported illegal aliens in the same manner.
A federal indictment stated Lopez made $5,000 for trafficking individuals and could be forced to forfeit the amount.
According to the sheriff’s office, Lopez assisted with smuggling 12 separate loads of people who came into the United States without permission.
Homeland Security Investigations, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and the Alto Police Department investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Hurst prosecuted the case.