SAN DIEGO (AP) — Felicitas Gurrola stands out at a time when the migrant smuggling business has turned increasingly violent and is dominated by large, mostly male operations that choose perilous routes through remote mountains and deserts.
Gurrola is 84, ran a mostly female smuggling ring and picked the busiest U.S. border post for her crossing of choice, U.S. authorities say.
In an almost inaudible voice, the Spanish-speaking octogenarian on Friday pleaded guilty to charges that she directed a smuggling organization that guided migrants across the heavily fortified U.S.-Mexico border by giving them imposter IDs to present to immigration authorities at the crossing in San Ysidro, California.
As an interpreter explained that she faces the maximum penalty of five years in prison, Gurrola stared ahead with a calm, almost expressionless face.
Her 56-year-old daughter, Hilda Moreno, and another woman in the ring also pleaded guilty to the charges. They face up to 15 years in prison, a stiffer sentence in part because of their younger age, defense attorneys said.
"Imagine being 85 years old and incarcerated for the first time," said Gurrola's attorney, Tom Matthews. "To say this is difficult for her is a gross understatement."
At his request, Judge Nita Stormes agreed to support keeping Gurrola jailed with Moreno so her daughter can help her. Matthews said he plans to ask at a Nov. 9 sentencing hearing for the judge to consider Gurrola's age and health issues, which include arthritis in her hands, elbows and knees, and gout.
The route Gurrola's ring used from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego is the busiest U.S. border crossing in the world.
Matthews said she ran her business for four decades without hurting any of her clients — unlike many of the traffickers who have left migrants stranded in the desert's searing heat or drawn them into fast-moving Rio Grande waters, where they have perished.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, the government will seek no more than three years and one month in prison, Matthews said.
When she began, Gurrola and her family were typical of other smugglers at the time.
Decades ago, Mexicans in small towns and villages who wanted to seek work in the United States often would hire a trusted family member or neighbor who had already been and who would agree to guide them for a small fee.
But mom-and-pop organizations have faded away with the dramatic increase in border security. Migrant smugglers started charging thousands of dollars in fees to pay for risking the journey through increasingly remote areas to avoid detection, and the illegal industry has become a booming, billion-dollar business attracting violent, organized crime networks — and even drug cartels — that muscled smaller competitors aside.
Despite all that, Gurrola continued to work, with the help of her daughter and others. She met migrants at Tijuana's Suites Royal Hotel where she would give the migrants immigration documents belonging to others and told them to memorize the information, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement affidavit.
Her ring — of almost all women — would then take the migrants to a beauty salon to look more like the photos on the documents.
Guides accompanied them to the San Ysidro border crossing and then on commercial buses to the Los Angeles area, where they got paid in cash by the migrants' families, usually around $3,500 a person, according to an affidavit.
The organization handled between 60 and 80 migrants a month during peak times and between 40 and 60 a month during slower patches, the affidavit says. That amounts to monthly revenue of about $280,000 in peak times.
Gurrola, who lived in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, and 10 others, including her daughter, were charged in April with immigrant smuggling.
Gurrola was earlier indicted for immigrant smuggling in 1982 but fled to Mexico, according to the affidavit.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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