Third in a three-part series
Life for Cecilio Rios-Quinones was always about money — and how little he had.
He started working at age 6, first on a farm near his home in Chihuahua, Mexico, and then in factories, where he earned as little as $10 a day for at least a 12-hour shift. As his attorney told a federal judge, he never had any formal schooling, much less a high school diploma, so his options were scarce.
He and a brother, Ricardo, eventually headed north to Tijuana, where Rito, another brother, was involved with a smuggling organization. Rito‘s job was to guide migrants across the border into California.
On Feb. 9, 2020, Ricardo and Cecilio tried to smuggle three women, the Santos sisters, but they got caught in a snap snowstorm in the mountains. The three women died, and Border Patrol agents made a dramatic rescue of the two men.
Ricardo and Cecilio were both sentenced this spring to 66 months in prison. Documents from their case provide a look into the psychology of a smuggler.
For men who had little money throughout their lives, smuggling seemed like an easy way to profit. They didn’t see themselves as cogs in a multinational smuggling operation, but rather as poor farmers or laborers in need of money.
Smugglers talk about ailing parents or expanding families counting on them to make ends meet.
Virtually all of them say they had no forethought about the dangers to themselves or to those they were smuggling.
“We weren’t prepared for the storm, and I would have never participated in this if I would have known someone would end up hurt or dead,” Ricardo Rios-Quinones told the judge in his case.
It’s a refrain echoed by others whose smuggling ventures go catastrophically wrong.
“The truth of the matter is that I had no clue that this could happen,” Ivan Ramirez Guzman told the judge before he was sentenced for his role in smuggling drugs and migrants. One venture ended up with a capsized boat and the Coast Guard rushing to save 14 people from the waters off Mission Bay in San Diego.
Although smuggling deaths are rare, they have become more common during this year’s surge, with drownings, exposure to the elements and vehicle crashes during high-speed chases.
Some smugglers give agents speeches about the nobility of their job. They rip phrases from immigrant rights rallies such as “No human is illegal.”
Most of them say they just need the cash, and some offer sad stories about their circumstances.
Jesus Samanieo-Contreras told agents that the $4,800 he was expecting for smuggling three people in Arizona would pay medical bills for his sick grandmother.
Some say they were forced into smuggling, but that defense usually appears to be false.
Sanjuanita Martinez, nabbed at a highway checkpoint near Laredo, Texas, in September, told agents that a man showed up at her home, snatched her 7-year-old son and flashed a gun. He told her to smuggle, or else, she said. Authorities investigating her story found that the boy was safe and living with Martinez’s sister in San Antonio.
At the time of her arrest, Martinez was on extended probation from a 2016 smuggling attempt using stolen birth certificates for two Mexican children. She had been in and out of prison and broken probation with positive drug tests.
Agents hear plenty of tales from smugglers looking for cash to feed a drug habit.
David Garcia-Nino, arrested in February 2020 while acting as foot guide for a group of nine migrants in El Cenizo, Texas, told agents he was smuggling to support his drug habit. He said he had been a guide since he was 10. He said he smuggled 20 groups in the previous month and earned $100 per person.
Last month, agents snared a truck with 54 illegal immigrants. The driver, Rafael Cazarez Jr., a member of the Mexican Mafia gang, told agents he was an unemployed heroin user but collected $50,000 for each smuggling run. This was his eighth time.
The Homeland Security Department announced Operation Sentinel in late April to target smugglers. The State Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration also are involved in the effort to identify smugglers, move to strip their travel visas and freeze their U.S. assets.
“We know who you are, and we are coming for you. We will take everything we can from you,” said Troy Miller, the acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, the agency leading the initiative.
Neither Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas nor Mr. Miller mentioned another option: bringing more criminal charges.
In case after case reviewed by The Washington Times, those arrested in the U.S. on smuggling charges are repeat offenders and are often given a break the first or second time.
Border Patrol agents in Texas stopped Haley Yvonne Garrett on April 15 and found six illegal immigrants in the Dodge Ram pickup she was driving. They seized the vehicle but released Ms. Garrett “due to lack of evidence,” according to an incident report.
Six days later, a state trooper tried to stop Ms. Garrett, but authorities said she fled and smashed her vehicle into a ranch fence. She and 11 illegal immigrants were arrested, but federal authorities again did not prosecute. Texas charged Ms. Garrett instead and seized the Chevrolet Silverado pickup.
Authorities said they nabbed Ms. Garrett again last month after another crash, again with 11 illegal immigrants. Federal officials again left prosecution to local officials.
The decision to prosecute rests with U.S. attorneys.
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said prosecutions usually dip during Democratic administrations, but the decline seems to be even sharper under President Biden.
“They’re just refusing, and they don’t give us reasons why,” he said.
Texas is filling the gap with state charges in some instances. Arizona could file smuggling charges, but agents in the state are blocked from reaching out to sheriffs’ offices to report potential cases, Mr. Judd said.
“If U.S. attorneys decline prosecution, we’re not allowed to contact the local sheriff’s office,” he said.
Prosecution often comes as a shock.
Ashley Jasmin Martinez, nabbed for smuggling in February but released, was arrested again on April 18 by agents at the Falfurrias highway checkpoint in Texas. Agents said she resisted, was hit with a stun gun and still managed to drive away with shredded tires. She reached 100 miles per hour before her tires disintegrated and she careened to a halt.
She told agents: “Y’all are just going to let me go in five hours like last time, anyway, so why are you wasting my time?”
Lia Zanotti, arrested last month at a highway checkpoint in California with two illegal immigrants in her car, seemed more worried about her bosses at the smuggling organization. According to court documents, she told agents she was making the trip to pay off her debt from a week earlier, when she was caught carrying four people. She had to pay back the organization the $40,000 it lost when the migrants were arrested.
She said she now owed another $20,000 for losing two more migrants.
Cecilio and Ricardo Rios-Quinones were operating on a much smaller pay scale last year when they smuggled the three sisters into the jaws of the snowstorm in the La Posta Mountains east of San Diego.
Each of the women paid about $8,500 for their trip, but Ricardo said he was getting just 18,000 pesos — about $900 — to guide the three.
The attempt was fraught with challenges from the start. The brothers speak Tepehuan, but the sisters spoke a Mixtec dialect. They dressed in light jackets for what they figured would be an easy route. None of the five was from the area and had no way of knowing what lay ahead, they told the judge.
They huddled behind a rock when the snowstorm struck, but it became clear that the sisters were rapidly deteriorating. Perhaps more important to the brothers, so was Cecilio.
The brothers left the women to get cellphone service for a 911 call, but they first called their smuggling handlers.
When they did reach 911, the brothers suggested that they were also migrants who had been abandoned. They also lied when they said all three women were still breathing. One of the sisters already had died, prosecutors said.
Pleading for leniency, the brothers saw plenty of wrong turns in their rear view.
“Should he have called 9-1-1 sooner rather than huddle up all together behind a rock? Yes. Should Mr. Rios-Quinones have known to skip a call to the boss before dialing 9-1-1? Yes. Should Mr. Rios-Quinones have insisted that everyone be given appropriate clothing and shoes before beginning the arduous trek traveled before by the women and his brother? Yes,” wrote Michelle Betancourt, his court-appointed attorney. “Should he have refused to leave that night because it was already raining? Maybe. It is hard to know whether a call 30 minutes earlier, 20 minutes or 10 minutes earlier would have saved the lives of these poor sisters.
“The sad truth is that Mr. Rios-Quinones will forever live with the guilt of having been part of a criminal act that killed three women. Even if his stoic personality did not outwardly show remorse when he was rescued, Mr. Rios-Quinones regrets the tremendous loss his actions caused the Santos family.”
U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo said the brothers needed to answer for the three deaths.
“It is tragic that someone wants to come here to work and dies, but it is more tragic that there are people who benefit from this, who treat them like cargo,” she said in slapping the sentences of 5½ years on each brother.
The third brother, Rito, who persuaded Cecilio and Ricardo to come to Tijuana in the first place, was nabbed by Border Patrol agents late last year.
He has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing this month.