Boat Captain in Fatal Maritime Alien Smuggling Incident Near Point Loma Sentenced to 18 Years | USAO-SDCA

Assistant U. S. Attorneys C. Seth Askins (619) 546-6692 and Lyndzie M. Carter (619) 546-8780

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – August 12, 2022

SAN DIEGO – Antonio Hurtado, the boat captain of the doomed vessel smuggling 32 migrants in May 2021 wherein three people died, was sentenced today in federal court 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.”

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. 

Throughout that night and into the early morning hours, 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 suffered engine failure.  Hurtado ignored his passengers’ pleas to call the U.S. Coast Guard 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 and below deck at his direction – and leaving them to fend for themselves.  When the vessel broke apart from the pounding of the surf, they were thrown into the water. 

Park Rangers stationed at nearby Cabrillo National Park saw this event unfolding and immediately called the Coast Guard.  Multiple agencies – including but not limited to the Coast Guard, the Harbor Police Department, the National Park Service, San Diego Lifeguard Services, San Diego Air and Marine Branch, Homeland Security Investigations, and United States Border Patrol – 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.

“Human smugglers have no respect for human life, as is demonstrated by this defendant,” said Chad Plantz, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations 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.”

“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 that smuggling operations are inherently dangerous and sometimes deadly when people put their safety in the hands of those that 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 3 years. 

DEFENDANT                                               Case Number 21-cr-1615-JLS                                           

Antonio Hurtado                                             Age: 40                       San Diego, CA

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Attempted Bringing In Illegal Aliens Resulting in Death and Aiding and Abetting

Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(1)(A)(i), (v)(II), and (a)(1)(B)(iv)

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

Attempted Bringing In Illegal Aliens for Financial Gain and Aiding and Abetting

            Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii) and Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2

            Maximum penalty:  15 years in prison and $250,000 fine

Assault on a Federal Officer

            Title 8, U.S.C., Section 111(a)(1) and (b)

            Maximum penalty:  20 years in prison and $250,000 fine

AGENCY

Homeland Security Investigations

United States Border Patrol

Air and Marine Operations (CBP)

National Park Service

United States Coast Guard

San Diego Harbor Police Department

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

San Diego Lifeguard Services

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