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Posted Friday, December 2, 2011
85-year-old migrant smuggler gets 2½ years prison
By ELLIOT SPAGAT | AP
SAN DIEGO (AP) — An 85-year-old woman who led a female-dominated immigrant smuggling ring was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison Thursday in a case that stands out at a time when larger, more violent organizations along the U.S.-Mexico border have muscled groups like hers aside.
Felicitas Gurrola was charged with moving up to 80 people a month past border inspectors at America's busiest border crossing in San Diego by having them assume false identities. Her method was relatively safe compared to common and sometimes fatal smugglers' tacks like leading groups through remote mountains and deserts or stuffing them in car trunks and engine compartments.
"This was a very well-organized, safely run operation," said her attorney, Thomas Matthews. "No one was ever put in danger."
Prosecutors argued that Gurrola deserved more than three years in prison for
conspiracy to bring illegal aliens into the United States, saying she was a
high-level smuggler compared to the lowly operatives that usually get captured
by U.S. authorities. Gurrola led the organization with her daughter and another
woman who were also sentenced.
"We've essentially been able to pull back the curtain," said Daniel Zipp, an
assistant U.S. attorney.
Gurrola — appearing frail with long, gray hair — apologized in a barely
"I'm remorseful. I ask for forgiveness. I'm very nervous. I can't speak," she
said through a Spanish interpreter.
U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw gave Gurrola's daughter, Hilda Moreno, 2½
years in prison. Guadalupe Ojeda, who managed a Gurrola-owned hotel in Tijuana
that was used as a staging ground for migrants, got three years and one month in
Small family-run organizations used to dominate the migrant smuggling
business, but they have faded in the last decade along with a dramatic increase
in border security. As smuggling fees have skyrocketed from hundreds to
thousands of dollars, larger, more violent criminal groups have pushed them
Gurrola managed to survive the industry turmoil until her
arrest earlier this year, aided by her 54-year-old daughter and others,
according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators. She met
migrants at Tijuana's Suites Royal Hotel where she gave them immigration
documents belonging to others and told them to memorize the information. An
underling knew how to read codes on the documents to determine information such
as whether they were new issues or renewals.
In the morning, migrants had their hair done to resemble the person on the
immigration documents, said Johnny
Martin, an ICE supervisory special agent. Gurrola lined them up and
assumed the role of immigration inspector. She berated them when they fumbled
Guides then led migrants through the San Ysidro border crossing, joined them
on a commercial bus to the Los Angeles area and collected $3,500 per person on
arrival, investigators said. The guides returned to the border in time for
"She had been doing it for a long time and
she found her niche," Martin said.
Gurrola was indicted on immigrant smuggling
charges in 1982 but never arrested, according to
an affidavit filed with a criminal complaint.
She allegedly boasted on a wiretap that she had
been in the business for more than 40 years.
As part of an agreement with prosecutors to
dismiss some charges, Gurrola's daughter
surrendered her home in Chula Vista, outside
Gurrola, a legal U.S. resident who was born
in Mexico, lived in Chula Vista with her
daughter, Martin said. They invited friends to
sit on lawn chairs in the garage and watch
television. They often visited San Diego-area
casinos to unwind.
David Baker, the daughter's attorney, told
the judge that the smuggling organization was
wrong, but he drew a contrast with more violent
"It can be said they had a certain ethic in
the way they ran their business," he said
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