San Antonio native — and former Army counterintelligence agent — could be at center of DeSantis immigrant flights (2022)


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Guillermo Contreras,Staff writer

San Antonio native — and former Army counterintelligence agent — could be at center of DeSantis immigrant flights (10)

Authorities are looking into whether a San Antonio native is the mysterious “Perla” who helped lure 48 Venezuelan immigrants from San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center onto a pair of chartered jets that flew them to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts on Sept. 14.

Sources confirmed that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office considers Perla H. Huerta — 43, a former Army combat medic and counterintelligence agent — a “person of interest” in its criminal investigation into the incident.

Sheriff Javier Salazar has said he’s looking into whether the migrants, who were allowed by the Border Patrol to remain in the United States while they seek asylum, were lied to or if the airlift organizers broke any laws.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for the flights, saying he used state funds to have the migrants transported to Martha’s Vineyard so northern “sanctuary communities” can see what border states contend with amid a record surge of immigrants. According to lawyers representing several of the migrants, they did not know they were going to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast that’s a vacation spot for the wealthy, until they landed there.

Late Sunday, the New York Times reported that a Venezuelan migrant who worked with Huerta to sign up other migrants for the flights confirmed her identity.

Salazar’s investigators, meanwhile, have been trying to learn more about Huerta, sources told the San Antonio Express-News.

“We can’t name any names in this because the fact is we don’t know that a crime has been committed yet,” Salazar said when asked about the identity of “Perla.” “So we can’t name any suspects. We have some people that are tentatively identified as persons of interest.”

Asked about Huerta, sheriff’s office spokesman Johnny Garcia said, “We are not publicly identifying anybody.”

“I know that name has been out there,” he said. “But we are still trying to obtain all the immigrants’ statements and investigate further until we are able to identify all the individuals involved.”

Rachel Self, a Boston lawyer who represents five of the immigrants, told the Express-News that she has been helping Salazar’s office in its investigation.

San Antonio native — and former Army counterintelligence agent — could be at center of DeSantis immigrant flights (11)

It’s early in the probe, and investigators have yet to locate or talk to Huerta or others believed to be involved.

The League of United Latin American Citizens is offering a cash reward of $5,000 for information about “Perla” but already had linked Huerta to the incident after meeting with the migrants in Massachusetts.

The civil rights organization has been trying to determine who hired her.

“We have nothing against Perla. We have nothing against DeSantis,” said a LULAC official, who asked for anonymity because leadership has requested that the organization make no more statements in light of the criminal probe. “We just want this(expletive) to stop.”

U.S. Army spokeswoman Madison Bonzo confirmed that Huerta left the military in August and served as a combat medic and worked in counterintelligence.

DeSantis said he used contractors for the operation, but he has refused to release details or the contracts. Online records show the state of Florida has paid more than $1.5 million to Vertol Systems, based in Destin, Fla., for migrant transfers.

Vertol didn’t fly the planes, but it chartered the flights through Ohio-based Ultimate Jet. A former Ultimate Jet official who left the company this year told the Express-News that Huerta did not work for Ultimate Jet during his tenure. Current company officials have declined to comment.

DeSantis has yet to address his connection to “Perla,” and he did not respond to an Express-News’ written request for comment for this story.

Vertol did not respond to voicemail messages.

Who is Perla Huerta?

There is limited public information about Huerta. Most of the social media information about her vanished over the weekend after the flights. Her Facebook and LinkedIn pages and posts by others that linked to her were removed or restricted, including one congratulating her for joining an England-based company that sells water pumps.

A photo on one of those Facebook pages showed her with blond hair. Another photo of her — published two years ago in the Hays Free Press in Hays County — shows her with darker hair and attending a screening of “The Breakfast Club” that featured an appearance by actor Anthony Michael Hall.

Numerous attempts were made to contact Huerta. Also, messages were left at the homes of some of her close relatives in San Antonio, as well as former in-laws in Colorado and her ex-husband in North Carolina.

No one responded.

A San Antonio relative of one of Huerta’s brothers, however, confirmed the Facebook photo was Huerta. Self said her clients identified the woman in the picture as the one who’d recruited them in San Antonio for the flights.

A military ID card and other records reviewed by the Express-News show Huerta was an Army noncommissioned officer. She was deployed twice in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 and four times in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2019, said Bonzo, the Army spokeswoman.

Huerta held the rank of master sergeant when she left the military in August.

Public records show she was born in San Antonio and grew up at a family compound near Sandy Oaks in Southeast Bexar County. One of her brothers operates a small trucking business, and a company linked to her family runs a liquor store at a strip center in Sandy Oaks, records show.

A message seeking comment was left at the liquor store.

Huerta graduated from Southside High School, class of 1996, and was married to a fellow soldier after joining the Army, other records show.

The couple lived in San Antonio and then Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg, one of the Army’s largest posts.

Since 2018, she has lived in Tampa, Fla., near MacDill AFB, which is home to U.S. Central Command. Known as CENTCOM, the command is responsible for protecting U.S. security interests from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia.

San Antonio native — and former Army counterintelligence agent — could be at center of DeSantis immigrant flights (12)

Huerta filed for divorce in 2017 in Niceville, Fla., where she and her then-husband were living. The split was finalized in February 2018.

Later that year, she paid $335,000 for a three-bedroom townhouse in Tampa, according to real estate records.

A neighbor, Daniel Palmer, said Huerta lives there with her daughter, who’s probably no more than 10 years old. Huerta dotes on the girl and sometimes has a female relative stay over to help, he said.

However, Huerta listed the condo for sale this summer for $549,900. She got a cash offer the same weekend after the migrant flights, according to her real estate agent. But the deal apparently fell through. It was relisted last week at a reduced price, $489,000.

Huerta’s current whereabouts are unknown.

“She told me that she was thinking of moving to Europe,” Palmer said. “I don’t know if she was kidding or being serious.”

Huerta’s white SUV was seen Monday at her Tampa home, but she has asked neighbors not to speak with reporters, according to Palmer. Sheriff’s deputies have reached out to Palmer as well.

False promises

Among migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, the most consistent story has been that “Perla” offered them $10 McDonald’s gift cards and paid at least one Venezuelan immigrant living on San Antonio streets, “Emanuel,” $200 to recruit migrants from around the migrant center for the flights.

The false promises made to migrants included work opportunities, free housing, schooling for their children and immigration assistance in Massachusetts, according to lawyers for the migrants.

According to Self, the Boston lawyer, her clients said “Perla” was one of at least half a dozen people on the ground in San Antonio during the operation.

“They said, ‘Come with me. We’ll give you everything,’” Self said.

The migrants were hungry, she added. They were taken to a hotel and fed, and then they were told what services they could receive in Massachusetts.

“They promised them(the migrants) everything but unicorns and rainbows,” Self said. “They believed her.”

“She appeared to everyone to be the one running the show,” the attorney added, referring to “Perla.”

“I think it’s pretty interesting that it’s somebody who for 20 years worked in the military and(some) in counterintelligence,” Self said. “It’s not your average person recruiting people in San Antonio.”

Self said migrants kept hearing that “Perla” and the other recruiters wanted a total of 50 migrants.

“The magic number was 50 because they wanted to fill two planes,” Self said.

She said the migrants spent two days at a La Quinta hotel in San Antonio before the flights left Kelly Field the morning of Sept. 14. Two-person teams accompanied the migrants on their flights, but “Perla” did not travel with them to Martha’s Vineyard, Self said.

DeSantis told Fox News that the migrants all went willingly and signed consent forms given to them in English and Spanish.

But Self said the documents weren’t fully translated and that the brochures and papers given to migrants about purported services in Martha’s Vineyard were deceptive.

The migrants said they understood the papers they signed were so that they could be given gift cards for $10 from McDonald’s, Self said.

Once the migrants realized they’d been dumped at the Martha’s Vineyard airport, they texted a number “Perla” had given them. At first, she texted back that things would be OK. Then the migrants got no more responses, Self said.

The lawyer said she believes a crime was committed and that she’s coordinating the migrants’ cooperation with Salazar’s investigation.

“Luring people across state lines with lies and abandoning them on the tarmac isn’t right no matter your politics,” she said. “There’s still people, at the end of the day, who were violated and lied to.”| Twitter: @gmaninfedland


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