SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — The final of three cash payments — $700 total — was left under a chunk of broken concrete behind the East Terrell Hills location of a San Antonio barbecue chain.
It was Sept. 20. The day everything fell apart.
Perla Huerta, a 43-year-old former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent working for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, got out her phone and opened the secure messaging app Signal.
“The money is going to be in the Bill Miller [restaurant] near your house,” Huerta wrote in Spanish to a 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant named Emmanuel. “It’s going to be behind the dumpster outside in a white envelope.”
She added two photos of the area, using her finger to circle the exact location in a thick magenta line.
Recruited by Huerta from a warren of tents behind a San Antonio McDonald’s, Emmanuel had been an ace in the hole for DeSantis’ secret program to charter flights to redirect Texas migrants to northern cities, a figurative poke in the eye to Democratic strongholds. A friendly and familiar face to the unprecedented number of Venezuelan migrants passing — legally — through Texas, Emmanuel quickly became a top recruiter of passengers, probably second only to Huerta herself.
Not that the amateur graffiti artist from outside Caracas could have picked DeSantis from a lineup — at least not before the Florida governor made national headlines when he “gladly” took credit for the two planeloads of migrants Emmanuel helped send to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on Sept. 14. Emmanuel said he never dreamed that offering people a free flight away from the overcrowded shelter in San Antonio could be political, much less possibly illegal.
A pawn in the hands of a professional handler working on behalf of a governor seen as a likely Republican contender for president in 2024, Emmanuel said he believed he was part of a benevolent mission run by a kind and compassionate woman. Huerta told him she was a military veteran. He trusted her.
Now, he is cooperating with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office’s organized crime unit in its ongoing criminal investigation into the operation. He asked to be identified by his first name only due to the high-profile nature of the case.
Emmanuel’s texts and other social media interactions — some of which have been obtained by the Miami Herald — provide an intimate view into the mysterious and manipulative “Perla” at the center of a well-organized, short-lived, covert operation directly overseen by DeSantis’ top aides and backed by more than $1.5 million from Florida taxpayers.
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With nothing left to gain politically and under legal and political pressure, DeSantis’ operatives pulled the plug — at least temporarily — after the sheriff’s criminal investigation was announced on Sept. 19. The next flight scheduled to leave the following day to Delaware — near where President Joe Biden has a home — was canceled. The recruiters scattered to the wind. Migrants stashed in a motel in anticipation of the next flight were each paid $100 — in $20 bills – for their trouble and hastily sent back to the San Antonio shelter.
Huerta vanished, Army pension in hand, her social media profile scrubbed and her home in Tampa already listed for sale. She left Emmanuel with a few hundred dollars hidden behind a dumpster, a plane ticket to Miami purchased a few days later to get him out of town, and a gnawing feeling that the first person he had trusted since coming to the United States had used him.
“I don’t know who is good, and who is bad,” Emmanuel said. “It’s like something is eating me from the inside.”
Now Emmanuel lives alone in temporary housing and is an unnamed defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought against DeSantis and the state by the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s not clear to him whether his future visa application could be negatively impacted. He hopes not. It’s a stark contrast to the experience of the 49 people lured to the island vacation getaway with false promises of jobs, as well as housing and other resources, whose immigration status the governor inadvertently assisted even as he said they didn’t belong in the country.
The Bexar County Sheriff’s office issued official certifications recognizing the migrants sent to Massachusetts as victims of crimes — specifically, unlawful restraint — paving the way for all 49 to apply for special visas to stay in the United States.
“These certifications will ensure that the migrants can continue to help our law enforcement officials, and that they will be able to process and heal from the incredibly traumatic experiences they have suffered as a result of the cruel, heartless acts committed against them,” Rachel Self, an attorney for the migrants, said in a statement.
It’s a crime to move someone from one place to another without their consent, said Kirsta Melton, the former chief of the human trafficking section at the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
“Arguably, since these people were lied to about where they were going and for what purpose, their consent is not real. That would be the argument. I think that’s a potentially viable [unlawful restraint] case,” said Melton, who now runs the nonprofit Institute to Combat Trafficking.
Unlawful restraint is a misdemeanor, except for in cases where the victim is under 17, as were five of the migrants sent to Massachusetts. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, said only those involved who were physically in San Antonio at the time of the crime are considered suspects in the ongoing investigation.
While the media has focused on Huerta, a Miami Herald investigation found DeSantis’ San Antonio operation was far bigger and better organized than previously known, with more than half a dozen recruiters and support staff on the ground, and some operational logistics handled from Florida.
Using the interest from a federal COVID-19 relief fund, DeSantis’ migrant “relocation program” was established in San Antonio by Vertol Systems Company, a defense contractor and aviation company based in Destin, Florida, with employees and independent contractors stationed from Bulgaria to the South Pacific.
The San Antonio operation was overseen by DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, according to text messages obtained by the Herald and other organizations through public records requests. Florida’s public safety czar, Larry Keefe, served as point person for the program in Texas, documents show.
An attorney who previously represented Vertol in dozens of lawsuits, Keefe served as U.S. attorney for Florida’s Northern District before he took a job that involved executing DeSantis’ hard-line immigration policies. Texts suggest Keefe may have been on the ground in Texas to help establish the program.
“I’m back out here,” Keefe wrote in a Sept. 5 text message to Uthmeier. “Conditions are quite favorable.”
“Very good,” Uthmeier replied. “You have my full support. Call anytime.”
DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions for this story, although a spokeswoman said the state plans to continue the migrant flights. No specific dates were given, although documents show Vertol requested an extension through December.
DeSantis has said the migrants flights were designed to draw attention to the border crisis. Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the expansion of a Trump administration policy that will deport Venezuelan asylum seekers who cross the border without permission.
Emmanuel returned to Texas from Florida a few weeks ago to cooperate with the sheriff’s investigation. He said he stopped communicating with Huerta around that same time. He had never heard of Vertol, he said.
“I am sorry for what happened in Massachusetts, but I didn’t know what was happening,” Emmanuel told the Herald, saying Huerta told him the people he signed up for the flights would receive jobs and housing on the other side. The sheriff’s investigator said that he believed him, Emmanuel said.
“I’m trying to show my face so that people know [what really happened],” he said. It’s not what they think, he added.
Copies of his WhatsApp messages reviewed by the Herald show Emmanuel pleading with Huerta to answer her phone after people in Martha’s Vineyard called him in a panic, saying no one was expecting them, they were scared, and Huerta wasn’t answering their calls. They had kids, he reminded Huerta in one message.
When she wrote back later it was to say she knew the migrants would be fine — because, she said, “now they are famous.”
San Antonio has become a purgatory for many of the more than 150,000 Venezuelan migrants who have crossed the United States’ southern border with Mexico since October of last year. The unprecedented number is a huge increase from years past, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Carrying documents declaring their legal, temporary parole status and mandating court appearances — often in distant, randomly assigned cities — between 500 and 1,000 people each day pass through San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center, the city’s only migrant shelter. These days, most are Venezuelan. After three days at the shelter, people outside the shelter told the Herald they would be asked to leave, regardless of whether they had somewhere to go.
It’s an anticlimactic end to the months-long journey.
“Many people are disoriented when they arrive,” Emmanuel said. “It’s like, I have arrived in the United States, but now what?”
The beige and white array of sun-broiled strip malls and parking lots around the city-funded migrant shelter became Huerta’s primary recruiting ground.
At any time of day, dozens of people sit in pockets of shade outside the shelter, smoking cigarettes and playing on their phones to pass the time.
In the listless hours between sprints to find cash jobs, migrants compare notes on their journeys north: How long did it take? One month? Two? How many days had they spent in the terrifying, mud-slicked jungle between Colombia and Panama? Did they ever get lost? Were they apprehended by Mexican police? How many times were they kidnapped and extorted by cartels along the Mexican border?
Almost everyone passing through the San Antonio shelter is looking for work, although none of the recent parolees have work permits yet. That process takes months, or more. Few have savings. Most rely on the charity of family members, or the patchwork of nonprofits offering aid, and work off the books for cash when they can.
In San Antonio, it’s easy to fall victim to predatory schemes, said Irwign Gutiérrez, a Venezuelan migrant who was approached by one of Huerta’s recruiters a few blocks down from the shelter but was skeptical of her intentions and declined the offer of a flight.
“There are people who only want to reach their destination and do not realize the danger that we face by letting ourselves be carried away by any offer of help,” said Gutiérrez who had studied to be a police investigator in Venezuela before making the trek north. When he declined the recruiter’s offer, the woman gave him the number of another Venezuelan who she said would vouch for the program: Emmanuel.
Gutiérrez grilled Emmanuel in a series of stern voice memos sent via WhatsApp and reviewed by the Herald. He asked for clarity about the program and said he might be able to help find people who wanted to sign up — if everyone’s intentions were made clear.
“I don’t need anyone to help me do my job,” Emmanuel responded before apparently blocking Gutiérrez’s number. “I have my count. What I need is people who want to fly and that’s it, you understand, man? Otherwise I don’t need anything else.”
At that point, Emmanuel had been at the job for just over one week.
Wearing a striped red-and-white shirt, Huerta first approached Emmanuel on Sept. 9 in a tent encampment behind the McDonald’s near the city shelter, where he lived with about 25 other migrants, including several young children.
Huerta had a gentle and kind disposition, Emmanuel said. She bought four pallets of water for the group, which they split, using some for drinking and the rest to shower. It was Emmanuel’s first positive encounter in the United States, he said.
Emmanuel had pitched the first tent nearly a month earlier, after the shelter denied him entry, he said, because he didn’t have a bus or plane ticket proving he would leave town after three days.
Other migrants who spoke to reporters outside the shelter said they didn’t have tickets when they arrived either but were allowed to enter. In some cases, they said Catholic Charities, which runs the shelter, arranged flights for them to cities around the country, including Miami. Buses leave from the shelter daily, taking people to destinations near and far. None of the several dozen migrants who spoke to reporters outside the shelter really understood how the transportation options worked or who was paying for them.
Catholic Charities, which is affiliated with the local archdiocese, did not respond to the Herald’s questions about its policies. Neither did the city of San Antonio, which provides the shelter’s funding.
Emmanuel grew up in San Antonio de los Altos, in a home with his mom and sisters. He said he only met his father twice. Entrepreneurial by nature, Emmanuel — a trained chef — hoped the United States would provide opportunities that his economically devastated home country could not. He made the trip up through Central America faster than most, only to get stuck in San Antonio with few options.
After living in a tent for 28 days of 90+ degree heat, Emmanuel was disillusioned and exhausted. Maintaining the camp meant a constant battle with police, who were angling to shut them down, though they had nowhere else to go.
Huerta was his escape route.
“I wanted to meet good people, good contacts,” he said. “With my talent, maybe I could get good things.”
Emmanuel didn’t need to take the flight himself — his immigration hearing had been moved to Texas — but he decided to help Huerta recruit the 50 people she said she needed to fill the planes.
“In this supposed sanctuary state, this lady told me that they were going to help with education, houses, jobs, and obviously I wanted that — to help the people who didn’t have anywhere to go, go to a place where people would take them in,” Emmanuel said.
He saved Huerta’s number as “Perla Hermosa” — Beautiful Perla. He thought she was wonderful.
“You could see her happiness in her face,” he said.
A covert operation
After 20 years in the Army, Huerta retired in August with a pension and moved on to work with Vertol.
The company has earned more than $25 million in contracts from the federal government, mainly providing flight training to the Department of Defense.
In July, records show Vertol’s founder, James Montgomerie, bid for a contract to administer the Florida Department of Transportation’s migrant “relocation program,” which was funded with up to $12 million in taxpayer money and was supposed to target “unauthorized aliens” in Florida.
Documents released through public records requests show that the advanced payments were conditional on Vertol’s ability to provide “project management, aircraft, crew, maintenance logistics, fuel, coordination and planning, route preparation, route services, landing fees, ground handling and logistics and other Project-related expenses.” Fluency in Spanish was also required.
When DeSantis said it was proving too difficult to round up sufficient numbers of migrants in Florida, the program was quietly moved to San Antonio, where the governor’s point person, Keefe, said the conditions were “quite favorable.” In Texas, Vertol’s operation targeted mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers, who were in the country legally, and had never been to Florida — leading to a lawsuit brought by State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat, over potential misuse of taxpayer funds.
The state budget approved the relocation only of “unauthorized aliens” from the state of Florida, the lawsuit pointed out — not migrants living in Texas after presenting themselves to border authorities and receiving approval to remain in the country pending their asylum hearings.
Operating out of rented SUVs, Vertol’s recruiters in San Antonio — who often worked in pairs — told migrants they represented an organization that would fly them to “sanctuary states,” according to half a dozen migrants who were recruited by the program. Recruiters leaned into the term “sanctuary,” describing the destinations as places with an abundance of resources and opportunities for migrants, rather than what they actually are by legal definition — states that, as a point of policy, don’t turn undocumented people over to federal immigration enforcement authorities.
Emmanuel said when he found people who wanted to take a flight, he would take pictures of their immigration documents and send them to Huerta over the encrypted app Signal, which she insisted he download. Huerta would then respond with a location for the pickup.
The recruiters rarely gave out their names, and if they did, it was only their first name. Although records show the flight destinations were known by program coordinators well in advance, the migrants only learned where they were going the night before as they signed consent forms saying they were participating in the program voluntarily.
Bus drivers contracted to shuttle the migrants were also given their destinations at the last minute. One driver told the Herald that after he got on the road he would receive a call from one of the “ladies” telling him where to take the migrants in his vehicle. He didn’t identify the ladies on the other line — if he even knew himself.
“These were intelligent people,” said Jesús Guillén, a Venezuelan migrant who was recruited for a flight by someone who introduced herself as “Carolina.” Guillén said he became suspicious that it was some sort of government operation because phones were prohibited whenever one of the organizers visited the migrants in their hotel rooms. Those who disobeyed and made recordings anyway were afraid to share them, because as Guillén said, the recruiters “had eyes everywhere.” Despite their aversion to being recorded themselves, the recruiters took videos of the migrants in their rooms when they briefed them on travel plans.
“They weren’t just anyone,” Guillén said. “They were very careful.”
Records released by the Florida Department of Transportation show the San Antonio operation was directly overseen by Vertol’s number-two executive, Candice Wahowski, also a military veteran from Florida, who previously served as the equivalent of a police officer for Air Force bases.
Emmanuel recognized Wahowski from an old photo, saying he met her at one of the San Antonio motels where the migrants were housed before being taken to their flight. In a video surreptitiously taken by one of the migrants, the woman Emmanuel knew as “Candi” wore a ball cap low over her eyes as she filmed the migrants with a hand-held camera during one visit to their hotel room.
“I saw Candi various times picking up people, bringing them food and all of that, but I didn’t know that she was la firma,” Emmanuel said, using Spanish slang for a high-level boss.
“They got to know me but I didn’t know them like that,” he said of the organizers behind the operation.
Wahowski did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment.
Vertol kept newly recruited migrants in an out-of-the-way La Quinta motel, where they were given donated clothes, food, toiletries, and $20 Visa gift cards for incidentals as they waited to find out when the flight would leave and where it was going. Many spent several days waiting, wandering around nearby shopping centers and doing flips into the pool while their friends recorded on smartphones. On occasion, Emmanuel gave them all haircuts. And on the eve of their flight, one group received brand-new, sky-blue duffel bags from Walmart to carry their new things.
The hotel experience was night and day from the freezing shelter, where several dozen migrants said the thin, metallic thermal blankets provided were their only protection from the relentless air conditioning and they survived on three small sandwiches a day.
None were expecting what came next.
“We are at 50 [passengers],” Keefe texted Uthmeier, DeSantis’ chief of staff, on Sunday, Sept. 11, in the middle of the afternoon. Everything was in place for Martha’s Vineyard.
The plan, he had already explained, was for the “event to occur next Wednesday with ETA at final destination mid to late afternoon.”
‘The worst woman in the world’
For nearly half an hour, Emmanuel wanted the earth to swallow him whole.
The cracked screen of his blue Android phone was lighting up on the afternoon of Sept. 14, alerting him to messages from Martha’s Vineyard, telling him the group he helped recruit had been dumped off in the parking lot of a community center.
They said no one was there offering housing or jobs like he had promised. It was getting dark. They were upset. They wanted answers. “What happened?” they asked. “Why was no one expecting us?”
Emmanuel didn’t know. What did I do, he thought. I sent them there.
“People were supposed to arrive receiving their benefits: a house, a job, something,” he said. “Rather, nobody knew they were arriving, and that surprised me.”
When the two small jets carrying 49 migrants left San Antonio’s Kelly Field airport around 9 a.m. that day, Emmanuel had been overjoyed.
“I felt like a good person, let’s put it that way, because it felt like I was helping,” he said. “For me, that is something very, very important. And to do it for people who had never been on a plane, people who had never been, let’s say, in a hotel like this, a pool with food. It felt good.”
His personal situation had also improved in the five days since he met Huerta. Emmanuel had finally moved out of the tent encampment and into a small apartment 20 minutes away. Although at first he had been $300 short for the $450 rent, Huerta had come through for him again.
“It looks like I have another flight,” she messaged him on WhatsApp. “I’ll hire you to help me.”
The job was to tell migrants at the shelter about her transportation program — which she said was backed by an anonymous benefactor — and hand out business cards with her number. They had sealed the deal over lunch the day the first flights went out, Emmanuel said. But just hours later when he called Huerta, confused by what was going on in Martha’s Vineyard, she didn’t pick up. He worried she never would again.
“Hey Per,” he wrote to her in a WhatsApp message at 3:33 p.m. “The guys there are telling me no one knew they were coming or anything. They’re saying they’re calling you.”
“Like 15 people have already called me,” he wrote six minutes later. “Some are afraid...”
“The group with children,” he reminded her.
“Ouch,” he wrote at 3:51 p.m. including a speechless emoji.
“You can trust me,” he wrote at 4 p.m. “But if you don’t talk to me, how can I help you?”
Huerta responded — 33 agonizing minutes after he sent the first text.
“Let me make some calls,” she wrote back. “The state has to be responsible for them.”
Emmanuel said Huerta provided a number for a local church to pass on to the migrants. And, within a few hours, Emmanuel said it seemed like the situation was beginning to improve. People had arrived with clothes and food, the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard messaged him. They would be sleeping in the church that night.
Although some were already telling reporters they had been duped into going there by a woman named “Perla,” Emmanuel said he was hopeful everything had been a big misunderstanding. Huerta defended her actions over WhatsApp.
“Yes, they will hate me now but I knew that [people there] were going to take care of them,” she said to Emmanuel. The group in Martha’s Vineyard was famous on social media, she pointed out. He agreed.
“They will do better than any other group [of migrants] and they have the attention of the whole country,” Huerta wrote. “And I continue to be the worst woman in the world.”
After Martha’s Vineyard
What had started as a secretive operation went even further underground after the news broke that DeSantis had been behind the flights to Martha’s Vineyard. The area outside the migrant resource center in San Antonio was packed with journalists hoping to catch a glimpse of “Perla” recruiting in the white vehicle described by migrants in Massachusetts. The Vertol team switched out their white rental Nissan for a black Infiniti SUV.
As an old photo of Huerta pulled from a now-deleted LinkedIn account circulated, Huerta was forced underground. She relied on others — especially Emmanuel — to help gather people for the next flights, which emails show would be sent to Delaware and Illinois between Sept. 19 and Oct. 3.
Although he was still upset that Huerta had lied about some things regarding the Martha’s Vineyard flights, Emmanuel believed Huerta when she said she was trying to help people. The houses and jobs she had promised were a lie, he said, but the migrants had landed in a place where there were plenty of resources to go around — just as Huerta said there would be.
“The state is taking care of all the people. They brought them new clothes, a telephone, cards with money for entire families, even visits to the dentist,” Emmanuel said. “I said, wow, they’re better off than many immigrants who have been here for 20 years.”
Tuning out the negative press, Emmanuel said he kept recruiting for Huerta after she promised him the the program wasn’t political — on one condition.
“What I told these people was that we couldn’t lie to [migrants] about them getting a house, that they were going to have a job, that they were going to have something,” he said. “I thought it was better to tell people the truth.”
The program wasn’t perfect, he said, but for many migrants stranded in Texas, getting to stay in a hotel for a few days before being sent to a state with more migrant resources was still a good option — even if they would be left to fend for themselves upon arrival. With all of the attention the first flights had gotten on social media, finding recruits was made all the easier.
After hearing from a distant cousin who had taken the first flight to Martha’s Vineyard, 24-year-old Pedro Escalona said he signed up for the next planned trip. Escalona heard from his cousin that the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard were getting donations of food, cigarettes and even money, he said.
“That’s why I wanted to sign up,” Escalona said. “They are very, very famous now.”
To Escalona, being used as a political chess piece seemed like a reasonable price to pay to get out of Texas.
Emmanuel has been hiding for over three weeks. Or was he running? All he knew was the lawyers who now represent him didn’t want him in one place for too long, he said.
On the eve of the planned Delaware flight, the sheriff announced his investigation, as press swarmed the airport in anticipation of the scheduled departure that had been noticed on a flight tracking website.
The flight was canceled. The San Antonio operation hastily dismantled, to be potentially resurrected at a future date yet unknown. And Emmanuel’s life became a blur of spare rooms and hotel beds, Red Bull and nicotine.
“I never used to smoke before I came to the United States,” Emmanuel said as he leaned against a garbage can in the shade of a nondescript gas station. It was the stress that had made him start, he said, or maybe the hunger. Once an accomplished parkour athlete who could easily do flips over park benches and low walls, Emmanuel said he had lost 36 pounds since leaving Venezuela.
“This cigar is really strong, although it hasn’t hit me yet,” said Emmanuel, taking another drag off the cheap Swisher Sweet. “When it hits, wow, it clears my head of everything. That’s why I took it up.”
Emmanuel said he wasn’t sure if all the moving around was because his lawyers were trying to hide him from “bad guys” who wanted to use him — or worse. He sometimes worried he was the bad guy.
“I’m in a dilemma where I don’t know who I am here in this story,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing — if I am doing the right thing by helping to deal with this matter or if I am doing the wrong thing by … talking about people who at the time helped me.”
Sarah Blaskey and Carl Juste reported this story from San Antonio, Texas. Nicholas Nehamas reported from Destin, Florida.
In addition, Miami Herald staff writer Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed reporting from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and Miami. Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Ana Ceballos contributed from Tallahassee. McClatchy D.C. staff writer Michael Wilner contributed from Washington, D.C. Bradenton Herald staff writer Ryan Ballogg and Miami Herald Managing Editor Dana Banker contributed from Tampa. Raleigh News & Observer staff writer Carli Brosseau contributed from Southern Pines, North Carolina. Miami Herald information services director Monika Leal contributed research and translation and Herald staff writer Ana Claudia Chacin contributed translation.