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Press Release

Region’s Top Federal Law Enforcement Officials Issue Plea to Migrants: Don’t Trust your Life to Smugglers

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

Media Relations Director Kelly Thornton (619) 546-9726 


SAN DIEGO – Following a wave of smuggling-related deaths in the region, San Diego’s top federal law enforcement officials made an emotional plea to migrants contemplating an illegal journey across the border:  Don’t risk your life.

In less than a three-week span, four lives were lost and dozens of people had to be rescued from rough seas and hospitalized after multiple maritime smuggling events went terribly wrong. 

“We are appealing to every person who is considering a desperate, perilous journey into the United States, whether in a boat, on foot, or crammed in the trunk of a car,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Don’t do it. Do not put your life in the hands of smugglers. These people do not care about you. They will jam way too many people on a boat or in a car, just to make more money. They will direct you to hike in remote areas in dangerous weather conditions without adequate food, water or clothes. Smugglers care nothing for their customers. They care only about maximum profit.”

There were 25 migrant deaths in border areas in San Diego and Imperial counties from October through April, compared to 29 in all of FY 2020.

“Crossing the border illegally is extremely dangerous.  Regardless of the crossing method, your life is at risk when placed in the hands of ruthless smugglers,” said U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Sector Acting Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Scott Garrett. “Smugglers will abandon their victims at the first sign of trouble, viewing them only as an expendable commodity.”

In the last three months, a number of people have been charged, entered guilty pleas, or received sentences in connection with smuggling deaths:

On Friday, May 28, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Antonio Hurtado, the alleged captain of the boat that ran aground off Point Loma on May 2. In that incident, three people drowned and 30 were rescued in a heroic effort by U.S. Coast Guard, San Diego Lifeguards, and Border Patrol.  Hurtado was charged with Attempted Bringing in Aliens Resulting in Death and other crimes. Many of the survivors who were interviewed by authorities said they had paid between $15,000 and $18,500 to be smuggled into the United States on the vessel.

In another case, today an indictment was returned charging Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar and Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero with the same crime - Bringing in Aliens Resulting in Death. On May 20, one person died and other individuals were rescued in another maritime smuggling event.  In predawn darkness, United States Border Patrol agents spotted numerous individuals in the ocean near La Jolla. A panga boat was also seen in the vicinity traveling further north. Border Patrol saw that the individuals in the ocean were in serious distress and desperately needed assistance. Lifeguards immediately responded and rescued eight people from the water. The panga then eventually came into shore near the Children’s Pool. A submerged victim was found nearby and did not survive. The migrants rescued from the water admitted that they were paying between $12,000 and $15,000 to be smuggled into the United States.

The tragedies are not limited to the ocean. Yesterday, Leobardo Soto-Toledo pleaded guilty to immigration crimes in January of this year involving a group of 14 migrants entering the United States through an underground drainage pipe during heavy rains. One man drowned and a woman was found floating unconscious; she was resuscitated by a Border Patrol Agent and treated at a hospital.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

In April, two brothers from Chihuahua, Mexico, were sentenced in federal court to 5 1/2 years in prison for smuggling three sisters across treacherous terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border in an ill-fated trek that resulted in the tragic deaths of all threeyoung women. One of those sisters was the mother of a young child.

In March,  Neil Edwin Valera, a U.S. citizen who resided in Tijuana, was sentenced to five years in prison in connection with the deaths of three Chinese migrants, including a mother and her 15-year-old son, who were found in the trunk of Valera’s BMW.

Also in March, Jose Cruz Noguez of Mexicali, Mexico, was indicted by a federal grand jury on immigration charges related to a March 2, 2021 smuggling event that led to the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals in a crash of an overloaded vehicle near Holtville, California. That case is pending.

Grossman praised the prosecutors on these cases for their excellent work, and he thanked U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Investigations and the Coast Guard, as well as the San Diego Lifeguards. “You put your own lives on the line to rescue migrants in distress whether in the desert, the mountains or the ocean.  You are heroes and we are all grateful for your efforts to protect everyone in our community irrespective of their immigration status.”

*The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Updated June 2, 2021

Human Smuggling
Press Release Number: CAS21-0602-Hurtado