SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two smugglers were sentenced to five years in prison Friday for leading a boat packed with illegal immigrants into rough surf, killing two passengers in the only known deaths from a spate of sea smuggling on the Pacific coast of the United States that began several years ago.
Fernando Figueroa, 51, and Javier Jimenez, 46, apologized and said poverty in central Mexico drove them to try to their luck at smuggling.
"Poverty just makes you do these things," said Jimenez, described by his attorney as a farmhand who occasionally fished for shrimp.
An 18-year-old Guatemalan woman and a 34-year-old Mexican man who tried to save her died after a rope got stuck in a propeller, capsizing the boat at Torrey Pines State Beach on Jan. 16, 2010. Neither wore life jackets, according to witnesses.
The government wanted a sentence of nearly six years for bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain resulting in death, but U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller said the men should be punished more in line with smugglers who get into fatal traffic wrecks.
"Unfortunately, we see more and more of these efforts," Miller said.
More than 20 people crammed onto a 26-foot boat that launched from the fishing village of Popotla, just south of the border, and traveled at night without lights.
Figueroa and Jimenez had led a failed smuggling attempt only a week earlier, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman said. Stranded, they were rescued in international waters by the U.S. Coast Guard and Mexican Navy and released by Mexican authorities.
Smugglers who charge about $5,000 a head are seeing business boom off Southern California waters. Braverman told the judge that the trend was "a ticking time bomb."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported 110 seizures of watercraft and related equipment in Southern California from October 2009 through September 2010, up from 49 seizures a year earlier.
There were 867 arrests in from October through September — all related to immigrant smuggling except for 39 related to drug smuggling — up from 400 arrests during the previous 12 months.
Seizures have continued to rise this year, prompting federal authorities in California to start targeting migrants for prosecution, not just the smugglers. Until now, the customers have been spared criminal charges.
Authorities have been warning passengers that they may be charged with a felony if they are caught again at sea, said Michael Carney, deputy special agent charge of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.
The first felony charges under the new policy were filed Wednesday in San Diego. Victor Valdez and Erika Solorio were charged with re-entering the country after being previously deported after being arrested at San Onofre State Beach, 65 miles north of the border.
"Our efforts at prosecuting the smugglers haven't had the desired effect, so we had to come up with something else," Carney said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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