Boat Operators Plead Guilty in Smuggling Death in La Jolla

Assistant U. S. Attorneys Jimmy N. Rotstein (619) 546-8573, Colin M. McDonald (619) 546-9144, and Victor P. White (619) 546-8439

NEWS RELEASE SUMMARY – August 18, 2021

SAN DIEGO – Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar and Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero pleaded guilty in federal court today in connection with their roles as operators of a panga boat that attempted to smuggle fourteen Mexican citizens into the United States in open ocean waters, ultimately resulting in the death of one passenger.

During a proceeding before U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen S. Crawford, Soto and Geraldo admitted that they piloted a panga boat loaded with 14 Mexican citizens from Mexico into the United States. As part of their guilty pleas, Soto and Romero admitted that the panga boat was loaded beyond capacity, which resulted in temporary engine failure that caused the boat to stall in open ocean waters in the middle of the night. They further admitted that when they arrived near Marine Street Beach in La Jolla, California, they stopped the boat approximately 80 yards from shore and instructed all 14 passengers to remove their life jackets and jump into the water without regard to whether any of them knew how to swim. They also assured many of the passengers that the water was shallow. One passenger, Rogelio Perez Gutierrez, jumped out of the boat, could not stay afloat, and drowned as a result of the smuggling attempt.

United States Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, and San Diego Lifeguards ultimately responded to this event and rescued a number of individuals who had jumped into the ocean at the direction of Soto and Romero. The other passengers on the panga boat 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.

“Another life has been tragically lost as a result of smugglers’ reckless actions,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Smugglers do not care about the safety of their human cargo. They care only about profits, and the U.S. Attorney’s office is committed to bringing them to justice for these callous crimes.” Grossman commended the excellent work of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jimmy N. Rotstein, Colin M. McDonald and Victor P. White, and as well as the HSI agents, Coast Guard officers, Border Patrol agents, Customs and Border Protection officers and San Diego Lifeguards, for their efforts in connection with the case.

“What’s really alarming is the callousness of these smugglers and their blatant disregard for the safety of those aboard the vessel,” said HSI San Diego Acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz.  “As seen in this case, the criminal networks who profit from these smuggling ventures prioritize profit over the well-being and livelihood of those who hire them.  HSI stays committed to working closely with our law enforcement partners and prosecutors to continue to disrupt these illegal smuggling operations and bring to justice, those who violate U.S. law.”

“Callous disregard for the safety of their passengers is a common trait among smugglers,” said Brandon Tucker, Deputy Director of Air Operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations in San Diego.  “Their actions have consequences for the people they smuggle.  They put people in danger, and now, they themselves will face the consequences of their actions.”

“The Coast Guard’s primary concern is the safety of life at sea,” said Capt. Tim Barelli, Sector Commander, USCG Sector San Diego. “This case is just one example of the disregard for human life these smugglers have, and we urge people not to place their lives in the hands of smugglers who ultimately care only about the money they will receive.”

Soto and Romero are scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge John A. Houston on December 13, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

DEFENDANTS                                             Case Number 21cr1665-JAH                           

Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar                          Age: 37                                   Mexico

Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero                         Age: 24                                   Mexico

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Attempted Bringing In at Other Than a Port of Entry Resulting In Death– Title 8, U.S.C., Sections 1324(a)(1)(A)(i), (v)(II), and (a)(1)(B)(iv)

Maximum penalty: Death or life in prison and $250,000 fine

Attempted Bringing In for Financial Gain – Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii)

Maximum penalty: Fifteen years in prison and $250,000 fine; mandatory minimum of five years in custody

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 is part of 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 and Customs and Border Patrol.  The FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are also part of the Task Force.  

 

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