Human Smugglers Sentenced for La Jolla Maritime Smuggling Death

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Assistant U. S. Attorneys Colin M. McDonald (619) 546-9144 and Victor P. White (619) 546-8439

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – December 13, 2021

SAN DIEGO – Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar and Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero were sentenced in federal court today to 71 and 60 months in prison, respectively, for attempting to smuggle fourteen Mexican citizens into the United States by sea, resulting in the tragic drowning death of a 43-year-old passenger.

Court records show that on May 19, 2021, Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero agreed to smuggle a group of undocumented individuals on a panga boat from Ensenada, Mexico to the shores of La Jolla, California—a distance nearing 100 miles. The smuggling venture encountered issues from the start. Due to engine trouble, the panga—which was significantly overloaded—stalled in the middle of open ocean waters. As a result, the group was forced to spend the night in the panga without adequate food or water. Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero then dropped their passengers on an island in the middle of the ocean while they tried to repair the panga. After making repairs, Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero retrieved the passengers from the island and proceeded to navigate the panga north towards La Jolla.

On May 20, 2021, in the early morning hours, the panga neared the shores of La Jolla by Marine Street beach. When the panga was approximately eighty yards from shore, Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero—not knowing if anyone could swim—instructed the passengers to remove their life jackets and jump into the water, assuring them the water was shallow. 

Twelve passengers did as they were told. Immediately they struggled to stay afloat and desperately started calling for help. The two passengers that remained on the panga saw their fellow passengers struggling and tossed life jackets into the ocean. Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero then saw a lifeless body floating in the water. After pulling the body into the panga, Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero sped the boat away from the group in the water towards another beach about a half-mile away. After landing there, Soto Aguilar and Geraldo Romero then left the panga and fled the scene. However, after some searching by law enforcement, they were apprehended nearby.

As law enforcement was securing the crime scene, a concerned citizen spotted an individual floating in the water near the beached panga. Responding officers immediately rushed to the individual’s aid, extricated him from the water, and quickly realized he was unconscious. A Border Patrol agent performed CPR in an attempt to revive the individual, but he was pronounced dead once lifeguards arrived on scene. The decedent was later identified as Rogelio Perez-Gutierrez, a 43-year-old citizen of Mexico.

At the original drop-off location, United States Border Patrol, the United States Coast Guard, and San Diego Lifeguards spotted the individuals struggling desperately in the ocean. Lifeguards ultimately rescued ten people out of the water. In later interviews, the passengers on the panga said they were paying between $12,000 and $15,000 to be brought into the United States; they stated they feared for their lives throughout the ocean journey.

At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge John Houston spoke about the “extraordinary danger” of smuggling on the high seas. Speaking of the gravity of the crime, Judge Houston said, “A human being is not here because of the risk you were willing to take.” He further urged the defendants to “[t]ell the people in Mexico that to captain or assist in driving a boat on the high seas will create a significant sentence.”

“This was a tragedy that never should have happened,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “These deadly smuggling incidents are on the rise. We will aggressively seek justice for the victims. But we also urge anyone who is contemplating an attempt to cross the border illegally: Don’t do it. Don’t put your life in the hands of greedy smugglers who care about money, not you.”  Grossman commended the excellent work of the prosecution team as well as the HSI agents, Coast Guard officers, Border Patrol agents, and San Diego Lifeguards, for their efforts in connection with the case.

“The U.S. Border Patrol will continue to seek maximum prosecution of individuals who smuggle at sea,” said San Diego Sector’s Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke. “This incredibly dangerous and unpredictable tactic has already claimed lives, yet smuggling organizations continue to enrich themselves by using it.”

DEFENDANTS                                                         Case Number 21cr1665-JAH                                  

Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar                          Age: 37                       Residence: Mexico

Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero                         Age: 24                       Residence: Mexico

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(i) and (B)(iv) – Attempted Bringing In Illegal Aliens Resulting in Death

Maximum penalty: Death or imprisonment for any term of years or for life; $250,000 fine.

8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii) – Attempted Bringing In Illegal Aliens for Financial Gain (three counts)

Maximum penalty: mandatory minimum five years’ imprisonment; maximum fifteen years; $250,000 fine

AGENCIES

Homeland Security Investigations

United States Coast Guard

San Diego Lifeguards

United States Border Patrol

Customs and Border Protection

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California helps lead Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), which was established by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in June 2021 to marshal the investigative and prosecutorial resources of the Department of Justice, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to enhance U.S. enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  The Task Force focuses on disrupting and dismantling smuggling and trafficking networks that abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants, pose national security threats, and are involved in organized crime. JTFA consists of federal prosecutors and attorneys from U.S. Attorney’s Offices along the Southwest Border (District of Arizona, Southern District of California, Southern District of Texas, and Western District of Texas), from the Criminal Division and the Civil Rights Division, along with law enforcement agents and analysts from DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Border Patrol.  The FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are also part of the Task Force.  

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