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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Seattle-area couple sentenced for human smuggling crimes

SEATTLE - A husband and wife from Pacific, Wash., who smuggled illegal aliens from Mexico, were sentenced in federal court Tuesday, following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Pacific Police Department.

Maria Bartola Santos-Gonzalez, 63, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison, three years of supervised release, ordered to pay $14,000 in restitution and directed not to have any contact with any of the aliens she smuggled. Juan Gonzalez Guerra, 55, was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison.

In January, Bartola Santos-Gonzalez pleaded guilty to a charge of harboring and a charge of aiding and abetting visa fraud. Gonzalez Guerra pleaded guilty to the charge of misprision of a felony for his actions at the same time.

According to court documents, the investigation into the couple started in May 2009 when a 7-year-old girl told her school counselor that an older man had been molesting her. The Pacific Police Department followed up on the claim and it led them to Gonzalez Guerra.

Detectives also learned that Gonzalez Guerra's wife had been tying up the girl's younger brother and beating him with a stick. When authorities questioned the parents of the two children, they learned the family had paid the defendants to be smuggled into the United States.

The case was referred to ICE and further investigation revealed that the defendants charged the smuggled aliens several hundred dollars a month to live in their garage of their home in Pacific. While the payment was supposed to cover rent, utilities and food, the defendants' bolted shut the refrigerator and cabinets and fed the family just twice a day.

The family also reported that Santos-Gonzalez required them to purchase fake "green cards" in order to secure employment and earn an income to pay their smuggling debt. At one point, a family member reported that he was required to work for Santos-Gonzalez's brother and have his paychecks made out in her name.

During the course of the investigation, ICE agents identified several other Mexican nationals who were smuggled into the United States and lived at the defendants' home while paying off their smuggling fees. It is estimated the defendants earned more than $24,000 from their illegal activities.

"Facilitating the smuggling of illegal aliens into the United States, and the subsequent exploitation of those aliens, is a serious violation of law and human dignity," said Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of ICE Office of Investigations in Seattle. "Addressing these matters remains a high priority for ICE."

At the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman said, "[Ms. Santos-Gonzalez] took their money, put them in circumstances that were dire ... children went to bed hungry ... [she] took advantage of these people ... in many ways it was a form of modern-day slavery... it is at the fundamental core that you cannot take people and grind people down... this is not the way to treat other people... you need to treat them with respect, you need to treat them with dignity."

Late last year, Gonzalez Guerra pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court to child molestation in the first degree and was sentenced to 51 months in prison, three years of community custody, and required to register as a sex offender. His federal sentence will be served concurrently with his state sentence. Santos-Gonzalez pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court to assault of a child in the third degree and she was sentenced to 90 days in jail and one year of community custody.

This case was investigated by ICE as part of the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking, one of approximately 42 federally funded human trafficking task forces in the United States. The case was prosecuted in the Western District of Washington by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ye-Ting Woo who heads up the U.S. Attorney's Office working group on human trafficking.