04/09/2013 07:20 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Man arrested near Sherwood charged in federal court with attempting to smuggle people into US

FARGO, N.D. - A man accused of spearheading an operation to smuggle people into the U.S. at the border of North Dakota and Canada has been charged in federal court.

Darwin Catarero-Sanchez is charged with bringing people into the country illegally and harbouring them. He made his first court appearance Monday and was assigned a public defender but was not asked to enter a plea.

Neil Fulton, head of the federal public defender's office for the Dakotas, did not respond to phone and email requests for comment Tuesday.

Catarero-Sanchez and seven other people accused of entering the country unlawfully were arrested about 1:30 a.m. on April 6, according to court documents. A U.S. Border Patrol agent apprehended the suspects while they were walking along a highway near Sherwood, in northwestern North Dakota.

Authorities said Catarero-Sanchez arranged transportation for the group from Montreal. Witnesses said he agreed to smuggle one person into the U.S. for $2,000 and another for $1,500.

Austin Skero II, chief Border Patrol agent for the Grand Forks sector, said the arrests were the result of co-operation among federal, local and Canadian law enforcement authorities.

"The assistance of our border communities is critical to our success," Skero said in a statement.

Border Patrol agents detained a total of 11 people in the case. Three people — Carlos Ayala-Bonilla, Ericka Vasquez-Barerra and Sahin Iyibas — are charged with illegal entry.

Vasquez-Barerra told authorities she has known Catarero-Sanchez for nine years and both of them lived in Montreal. She said she wanted to visit family in New Jersey and agreed to pay Catarero-Sanchez $1,500 to get into the U.S., investigators said.

Vasquez-Barerra and Iyibas told police that Catarero-Sanchez and another man took turns driving a group of five people from Montreal to Carnduff, Saskatchewan, where they checked into a hotel. Catarero-Sanchez then led people around the port of entry at Sherwood in the middle of the night.

The investigation led agents to a residence in Minot, where others were taken into custody on allegations they crossed the border illegally.

"The security of our northern border remains a top priority of our office," Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said in a statement.