Assistant U.S. Attorneys C. Seth Askins (619) 546-6692 and Lyndzie M. Carter (619) 546-8780
SUMMARY OF PRESS RELEASE – August 12, 2022
SAN DIEGO — Antonio Hurtado, the captain of the convicted boat that smuggled 32 migrants in May 2021 and in which three people died, was sentenced today in federal court to 18 years in prison. During the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino said it was “the most egregious case I’ve had in my courtroom in over 15 years in the Southern District of California”.
As detailed in pleadings filed before the hearing, on the afternoon and evening of May 1, 2021, smugglers in Puerto Neuvo, Baja California, Mexico transported undocumented migrants from the beach to a place about two hours offshore near the Coronado Islands where Hurtado and his 40-foot boat – dubbed “Salty Lady” – were waiting. These individuals – including three unaccompanied minors – had agreed to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States.
Throughout that night and into the wee hours of the morning, Hurtado navigated his boat and its occupants through rainy conditions and rough seas from Mexico to United States territorial waters. Along the way, according to many illegal immigrants, Hurtado repeatedly used controlled substances and even lost consciousness for more than an hour before passengers were finally able to wake him up. Shortly after, the ship suffered engine failure. Hurtado ignored pleas from her passengers to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help, and the ship drifted closer and closer to land, inevitably running aground about 50 yards from shore near Point Loma. Knowing that his boat was doomed as the waves pounded it and it began to list on its side, Hurtado jumped into the water and headed for shore, abandoning his passengers – who had been hiding in the cabin and under the bridge at his request – and leaving that they fend for themselves. When the ship broke under the pounding of the waves, they were thrown overboard.
Park Rangers stationed in nearby Cabrillo National Park saw this event unfold and immediately called the Coast Guard. Multiple agencies – including, but not limited to, Coast Guard, Port Police Department, National Park Service, San Diego Lifeguard Services, San Diego Air and Marine Branch, Homeland Security and the United States Border Patrol – responded to the scene and began a massive rescue and recovery effort. Thanks to their quick reaction, they were able to rescue 29 undocumented migrants from the water. Tragically, they recovered three people who were on board 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 suffered blunt force trauma and drowned.
Based on statements from 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 indicated that he was “coming down” from his previous use of a controlled substance, so officers took him to the hospital for detox. At the Border Patrol Station, Border Patrol Agent Xalick Castorena knelt beside the accused and attempted to apply an ankle restraint for security during transport. When he did, Hurtado looked around the room as if to assess the situation, turned to the left, and slammed his right knee into the side of Officer Castorena’s face, committing an assault on a federal officer whom Judge Sammartino described as “violent”. and “awful”.
“Thirty-two passengers put their savings and their lives in the hands of this defendant. His reckless behavior and flagrant failure to call for help put each of them in grave danger and caused the tragic loss of three lives,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “This conviction recognizes the gravity of these crimes and comes as a stark warning to smugglers: your for-profit schemes will fail; we will prosecute you for your crimes; and we will obtain justice for your victims. Grossman thanked the prosecution team and many federal agents and officers who prosecuted this case.
“Smugglers have no respect for human life, as this defendant demonstrates,” said Chad Plantz, San Diego Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent. “The deaths in this investigation could have been avoided had the defendant not treated these victims as useless commodities; HSI will not tolerate transnational criminal organizations trying to advance their multi-billion dollar business in San Diego. HSI is committed to investigating smugglers and holding them accountable for their actions.
“This lawsuit highlights the commitment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard to protect our country from illicit contraband and to protect all persons operating on our waters,” said Commanding Officer Ray A. Slapkunas, Commanding Officer San Diego Coast Guard Sector Deputy. “This extremely unfortunate case shows that smuggling operations are inherently dangerous and sometimes deadly when people put their safety in the hands of those who do not have their best interests in mind. While nothing can bring back these lost people, today’s sentence is a reminder that the Coast Guard and our partners at the Department of Justice will work tirelessly to hold accountable those who seek to willfully engage in the illegal and dangerous practice of illegal smuggling.
“The collaborative efforts of numerous law enforcement agencies, including that of the United States Attorney’s Office, resulted in the arrest, conviction, and conviction of Antonio Hurtado,” said Chief Patrol Constable Aaron M. Heitke. “This incredibly dangerous and unpredictable tactic has already caused casualties, but smuggling organizations continue to enrich themselves using it.”
“This event is a clear indication of smugglers’ lack of concern for vulnerable populations,” said Brandon Tucker, director of San Diego Air and Marine. “Individuals are putting their lives in the hands of criminal organizations to enter the United States illegally across the unforgiving Pacific Ocean. Sadly, three lives were lost that day, but I am grateful for the efforts of Air and Marine Operations officers and our partner agencies to rescue and ensure the safety of the 29 people stranded at sea.”
After serving his custodial sentence, Hurtado will be on probation for 3 years.
RESPONDENT Case number 21-cr-1615-JLS
Antonio Hurtado Age: 40 San Diego, CA
Attempted smuggling of illegal aliens resulting in death and complicity
Title 8, USC, section 1324(a)(1)(A)(i), (v)(II) and (a)(1)(B)(iv)
Maximum penalty: life in prison and $250,000 fine
Attempted smuggling of illegal aliens for financial gain and complicity
Title 8, USC, Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii) and Title 18, USC, Section 2
Maximum sentence: 15 years in prison and $250,000 fine
Assault on a federal officer
Title 8, USC, Section 111(a)(1) and (b)
Maximum sentence: 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine
Homeland Security Investigations
United States Border Patrol
Air and Maritime Operations (CBP)
National Park Service
United States Coast Guard
San Diego Port Police Department
San Diego Fire Department
San Diego Lifeguard Services