Two Mexican Human Traffickers charged for freezing deaths of three sisters


SAN DIEGO CALIFORNIA – Two brothers from Chihuahua, Mexico, were sentenced in federal court today to 66 months in prison and a $500 special assessment for smuggling three sisters across treacherous terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border in an ill-fated trek that resulted in the tragic deaths of the young women – Juana Santos Arce (age 35), Margarita Santos Arce (age 32) and Paula Santos Arce (age 29) of Oaxaca, Mexico. 

Cecilio and Ricardo Rios-Quinones pleaded guilty in August 2020 to Transportation of Aliens Resulting in Death, Bringing in Aliens for Financial Gain and Conspiracy.

Calling this one of the worst human smuggling scenarios she has seen in 15 years as a judge, U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo stated that “three women froze to death because defendants sought to benefit from their need to come here.  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.”

Judge Bencivengo found it significant that when events turned horrific, defendants did not immediately seek help and turn around.  She recognized the presence at the sentencing hearing of several agents who engaged in the rescue operation, noting that they put their own lives at risk only to find two women dead and one barely alive, and despite their best efforts they could not get off the mountain in time to save her.

“The smugglers with whom individuals entrust their lives care only about money and not safety,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “We pledge to fervently seek justice for victims following these calamities, but we cannot bring back those who were lost or end the suffering of grieving families.  I implore others not to entrust their lives or the lives of their loved ones to these smugglers.”  Grossman praised the efforts of Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlotte Kaiser, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Border Patrol in prosecuting this case as well as all the agents and first responders who worked tirelessly and at risk to themselves to locate and rescue the sisters. 

“Human smugglers prey on the desperation of people hoping for a better life in the United States,” said Cardell T. Morant, special agent in charge of HSI San Diego. “This case exemplifies the ruthlessness of smugglers, and should serve as a warning to people considering putting their lives in their hands. HSI will continue to work tirelessly to hold unscrupulous smugglers accountable and bring them to justice.”

“We are pleased that justice was served and that these criminals will be placed behind bars,” stated United States Border Patrol San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke. “May this sentencing serve as a strong message to others contemplating smuggling that this activity will not be tolerated.”

According to the government’s sentencing memorandum, the women occasionally came to the U.S. for work. According to family members, Paula, the youngest of the three sisters, was married and had an 18-month-old daughter at the time of her death.

As part of their plea agreements, the defendants admitted that they conspired with others to serve as foot guides in order to smuggle individuals illegally into the United States, and that they were ill-prepared when they guided the three sisters through a remote, mountainous region during a snow storm.

According to the plea agreements, the defendants guided the three sisters  across the border from Mexico through the boundary fence in a remote area within the Southern District of California. They encountered cold, windy and rainy weather. It then began to snow. They lacked proper clothing, shoes, shelter, and other food and equipment to remain or hike in this cold, remote, mountainous environment.

According to reports, agents from the Border Patrol, Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) unit initiated a rescue operation due to a distress call in the Boulevard Border Patrol Station’s area of operation on February 10, 2020, at approximately 1:50 p.m. The call concerned five individuals who were lost and experiencing hypothermia. BORSTAR agents initially encountered the two defendants in a snowy area approximately 20.5 miles east of the Tecate, California port of entry, more than 12 miles north of the border. The defendants pointed agents to the direction of the three sisters.  Agents subsequently found the three sisters lying on the ground on a ridge.

Two of the sisters were already dead.  The third sister was responsive but suffering from severe hypothermia. She later died despite gallant efforts of members of BORSTAR, Border Patrol Agents from the Campo/Boulevard area and the City of San Diego Fire & Rescue Department, who placed their own lives at risk while trying to keep the distressed sister alive as temperatures dropped and winds accelerated. Autopsies confirmed the three sisters died due to environmental hypothermia.

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