SAN DIEGO – Two brothers from Chihuahua, Mexico, pleaded guilty in
federal court today, admitting that they smuggled three sisters across
the U.S.-Mexico border in an ill-fated trek across treacherous terrain
that resulted in the tragic deaths of the young women. One of the
victims was the mother of a young child.
Cecilio and Ricardo Rios-Quinones pleaded guilty to Transportation of
Aliens Resulting in Death, Bringing in Aliens for Financial Gain and
Conspiracy. The brothers are scheduled to be sentenced on November 13,
2020 at 9 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo. The
defendants also agreed to provide restitution to the sisters’ families.
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 - Juana Santos Arce,
Margarita Santos Arce and Paula Santos Arce of Oaxaca, Mexico - through a
remote, mountainous region during a snow storm. The youngest sister was
the mother of a young child.
According to the plea agreements, the defendants guided the three
sisters - ages 35, 32 and 29 respectively - 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,
According to the plea agreements, 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 undocumented aliens who were lost and experiencing
hypothermia. BORSTAR agents initially encountered the two defendants in
the snow in an area approximately 20.5 miles east of the Tecate,
California port of entry and approximately 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 near a
large boulder on a ridge.
Two of the women were already dead; one was responsive but suffering
severely from hypothermia. She later died despite gallant efforts of
members of BORSTAR, Border Patrol Agents from the Campo/Boulevard area
and ASTREA, the aviation unit from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department,
who placed their own lives at risk while trying to keep the distressed
woman alive as temperatures dropped and winds accelerated. Autopsies
confirmed the three sisters died due to environmental hypothermia.
“These three young women lost their lives in horrible circumstances,
despite the heroic efforts of many who tried to save them,” said U.S.
Attorney Robert Brewer. “This is a tragedy that never should have
happened. Unfortunately, migrant deaths are not uncommon because selfish
smugglers don’t hesitate to place vulnerable victims in grave danger to
make money. We will deliver justice to these callous smugglers who
value their pay day over human lives.” Brewer commended the hard work of
prosecutor Charlotte Kaiser and federal agents from Homeland Security
Investigations to achieve justice in this case, and the heroism of many
Border Patrol agents and Sheriff’s deputies in this heartbreaking case.
“Human smugglers are driven by greed, prey on the desperate, and
demonstrate a blatant disregard for human life, as demonstrated by this
senseless tragedy,” said Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special
Agent in Charge Cardell T. Morant. “HSI and our partners remain
committed to pursuing and convicting the criminal networks that exploit
migrants for profit and undermine our nation’s immigration laws.”
“Justice has been served with these guilty pleas. Unfortunately, the
families of those lost in this tragedy will never be whole. These young
woman suffered and died at the hands of smugglers who never saw them as
people, but only as commodities that could be exploited,” said San Diego
Sector Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke. “Border Patrol agents
frequently risk their own lives to save others. The actions exhibited in
this event represent the highest values of the Border Patrol.”
DEFENDANT Case Number 20cr0868-CAB
Cecilio Rios-Quinones Age: 37 Chihuahua, Mexico
Ricardo Rios-Quinones Age: 22 Chihuahua, Mexico
SUMMARY OF CHARGES
Transportation of Aliens Resulting in Death – Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(1)(A)(i) and (B)(iv)
Maximum penalty: Life in prison or death and $250,000 fine
Bringing in Aliens for Financial Gain – Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii)
Maximum penalty: Three years mandatory minimum in prison, 10 years maximum, and $250,000 fine
Conspiracy – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371
Maximum Penalty: Five years in prison and $250,000 fine
Homeland Security Investigations
U.S. Border Patrol, Intelligence Unit