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August 16, 2022San Diego, CA, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

Boat captain in fatal maritime human smuggling incident near Point Loma sentenced to 18 years

SAN DIEGO – A boat captain who attempted to smuggle 21 noncitizens in May 2021, resulting in the death of three people, was sentenced Aug. 12 in federal court following a multiagency investigation that included Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the Harbor Police Department, the National Park Service, San Diego Lifeguard Services, San Diego Air and Marine Branch, and U.S. Border Patrol.

Following the investigation, Antonio Hurtado was sentenced to 18 years in prison. At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino stated this “is the most egregious case I’ve ever had in my courtroom in over 15 years in the Southern District of California.”

“Human smugglers have no respect for human life, as demonstrated by this defendant,” said Chad Plantz, special agent in charge for HSI San Diego. “The deaths in this investigation could have been prevented had the defendant not treated these victims like dispensable cargo; HSI will not tolerate transnational criminal organizations attempting to further their multi-billion-dollar enterprise in San Diego. HSI is committed to investigating smugglers and holding them accountable for their actions.”

As detailed in pleadings filed prior to the hearing, during the afternoon and evening of May 1, 2021, smugglers in Puerto Neuvo, Baja California, Mexico, shuttled undocumented migrants from the beach to a location approximately two hours offshore near the Coronado Islands where Hurtado and his 40-foot boat – named the “Salty Lady” – were waiting. Those individuals – including three unaccompanied minors – had agreed to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States illegally.

Hurtado piloted his boat and its occupants through rainy conditions and rough seas from Mexico into United States territorial waters. Along the way, according to many of the smuggled migrants, Hurtado repeatedly used controlled substances and even lost consciousness for over an hour before passengers were finally able to wake him. Shortly thereafter, the vessel sustained engine failure. Hurtado ignored his passengers’ pleas to call the USCG for help, and the vessel drifted closer and closer to land, inevitably running aground approximately 50 yards from shore near Point Loma. Knowing his boat was doomed as waves battered it and it began to list on its side, Hurtado jumped into the water and made his way to shore, abandoning his passengers – who had concealed themselves in the cabin below deck at his direction – leaving them to fend for themselves. When the vessel broke apart from the pounding of the surf, the passengers were thrown into the water.

Park Rangers stationed at nearby Cabrillo National Park saw this event unfolding and immediately called the Coast Guard. Multiple federal agencies also responded to the scene and began a massive rescue and recovery effort. Thanks to their swift response, they were able to rescue 29 undocumented migrants from the water. Tragically, they recovered three individuals who had been aboard the boat and did not survive – Maricela Hernandez-Sanchez, Victor Perez-Degollado, and Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia. Subsequently, the medical examiner determined that these three individuals had sustained blunt force trauma and drowned.

Based on statements from the surviving undocumented migrants, Hurtado was identified as the pilot of the boat, taken into custody, and transported to a Border Patrol station for processing. However, while there, he advised that he was “coming down” from his prior use of a controlled substance, so agents brought him to a hospital to detox. In the Border Patrol station, Border Patrol Agent Xalick Castorena knelt beside defendant and attempted to apply an ankle restraint for security during transportation. When he did so, Hurtado looked around the room as if to assess the situation, turned to the left, and slammed his right knee into the side of Agent Castorena’s face, committing an assault on a federal officer that Judge Sammartino referred to as “violent” and “awful.”

“Thirty-two passengers put their savings and their lives in this defendant’s hands. His reckless behavior and egregious failure to seek assistance put every one of them at serious risk and caused the tragic loss of three lives,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “This sentence recognizes the serious nature of these crimes and stands as a stern warning to smugglers: your profit-driven schemes will fail; we will prosecute you for your crimes; and we will obtain justice for your victims.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team and numerous federal agents and officers who pursued this case.

“This prosecution highlights the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Coast Guard’s commitment to safeguarding our nation against illicit smuggling and protecting all individuals operating on our waters,” said Commander Ray A. Slapkunas, deputy sector Commander, Coast Guard sector San Diego. “This extremely unfortunate case highlights smuggling operations are inherently dangerous, and sometimes deadly, when people put their safety in the hands of those who do not have their best interest in mind. While nothing can bring back those individuals lost, today’s sentence serves as a reminder that the Coast Guard and our partners at the Department of Justice will work tirelessly to hold accountable those who seek to deliberately engage in the illegal and dangerous practice of human smuggling.”

“Collaboratively, the efforts of many law enforcement agencies, including that of the United States Attorney’s office resulted in Antonio Hurtado’s arrest, conviction, and just sentencing,” said Chief Patrol Agent Aaron M. Heitke. “This incredibly dangerous and unpredictable tactic has already claimed lives, yet smuggling organizations continue to enrich themselves by using it.”

“This event is a clear indication of the lack of concern smugglers have for vulnerable populations,” said San Diego Air and Marine Director Brandon Tucker. “Individuals put their lives in the hands of criminal organizations to enter the United States illegally through the unforgiving Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, three lives were lost that day, but I am thankful for the efforts by Air and Marine Operations agents and our partner agencies to rescue and ensure the safety of the 29 individuals that were stranded at sea.”

After serving his custodial sentence, Hurtado will be on supervised release for a period of three years.

Members of the public can report smuggling activity by calling 1-866-347-2423 toll-free, internationally at 001-1802-872-6199, or complete the online tip form.

For additional information about HSI’s smuggling activity in San Diego, follow us on Twitter @HSISanDiego.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 6,800 special agents assigned to 225 cities throughout the United States, and 86 overseas locations in 55 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Updated: 08/16/2022