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Press Release

Men Admit to Smuggling Disaster that Resulted in Tragic Deaths of Three Sisters

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of California

Assistant U. S. Attorney Charlotte E. Kaiser (619) 546-7282 

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – August 25, 2020

SAN DIEGO – Two brothers from Chihuahua, Mexico, pleaded guilty in federal court today, admitting that they smuggled three sisters across the U.S.-Mexico border in an ill-fated trek across treacherous terrain that resulted in the tragic deaths of the young women. One of the victims was the mother of a young child.

Cecilio and Ricardo Rios-Quinones pleaded guilty to Transportation of Aliens Resulting in Death, Bringing in Aliens for Financial Gain and Conspiracy. The brothers are scheduled to be sentenced on November 13, 2020 at 9 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo. The defendants also agreed to provide restitution to the sisters’ families.

As part of their plea agreements, the defendants admitted that they conspired with others to serve as foot guides in order to smuggle individuals illegally into the United States, and that they were ill-prepared when they guided the three sisters - Juana Santos Arce, Margarita Santos Arce and Paula Santos Arce of Oaxaca, Mexico - through a remote, mountainous region during a snow storm. The youngest sister was the mother of a young child.

According to the plea agreements, the defendants guided the three sisters - ages 35, 32 and 29 respectively - across the border from Mexico through the boundary fence in a remote area within the Southern District of California. They encountered cold, windy and rainy weather. It then began to snow. They lacked proper clothing, shoes, shelter, and other food and equipment to remain or hike in this cold, remote, mountainous environment.

According to the plea agreements, agents from the Border Patrol, Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) unit initiated a rescue operation due to a distress call in the Boulevard Border Patrol Station’s area of operation on February 10, 2020, at approximately 1:50 p.m. The call concerned five undocumented aliens who were lost and experiencing hypothermia. BORSTAR agents initially encountered the two defendants in the snow in an area approximately 20.5 miles east of the Tecate, California port of entry and approximately 12 miles north of the border. The defendants pointed agents to the direction of the three sisters.  Agents subsequently found the three sisters lying on the ground near a large boulder on a ridge.

Two of the women were already dead; one was responsive but suffering severely from hypothermia. She later died despite gallant efforts of members of BORSTAR, Border Patrol Agents from the Campo/Boulevard area and ASTREA, the aviation unit from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, who placed their own lives at risk while trying to keep the distressed woman alive as temperatures dropped and winds accelerated. Autopsies confirmed the three sisters died due to environmental hypothermia.

“These three young women lost their lives in horrible circumstances, despite the heroic efforts of many who tried to save them,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “This is a tragedy that never should have happened. Unfortunately, migrant deaths are not uncommon because selfish smugglers don’t hesitate to place vulnerable victims in grave danger to make money. We will deliver justice to these callous smugglers who value their pay day over human lives.” Brewer commended the hard work of prosecutor Charlotte Kaiser and federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations to achieve justice in this case, and the heroism of many Border Patrol agents and Sheriff’s deputies in this heartbreaking case.

“Human smugglers are driven by greed, prey on the desperate, and demonstrate a blatant disregard for human life, as demonstrated by this senseless tragedy,” said Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge Cardell T. Morant. “HSI and our partners remain committed to pursuing and convicting the criminal networks that exploit migrants for profit and undermine our nation’s immigration laws.”

“Justice has been served with these guilty pleas. Unfortunately, the families of those lost in this tragedy will never be whole. These young woman suffered and died at the hands of smugglers who never saw them as people, but only as commodities that could be exploited,” said San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke. “Border Patrol agents frequently risk their own lives to save others. The actions exhibited in this event represent the highest values of the Border Patrol.”

DEFENDANT                                               Case Number 20cr0868-CAB                                        

Cecilio Rios-Quinones                                   Age: 37                        Chihuahua, Mexico

Ricardo Rios-Quinones                                   Age: 22                       Chihuahua, Mexico


Transportation of Aliens Resulting in Death – Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(1)(A)(i) and (B)(iv)

Maximum penalty: Life in prison or death and $250,000 fine

Bringing in Aliens for Financial Gain – Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii)

Maximum penalty: Three years mandatory minimum in prison, 10 years maximum, and $250,000 fine

Conspiracy – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371

Maximum Penalty: Five years in prison and $250,000 fine


Homeland Security Investigations

U.S. Border Patrol, Intelligence Unit


Updated August 25, 2020

Human Smuggling
Press Release Number: CAS20-0825-Rios