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Two indicted in fatal smuggling case off La Jolla

Investigators in La Jolla look over a small boat following what authorities say was a migrant smuggling attempt.
Investigators near the Children’s Pool in La Jolla look over a small boat on the beach May 20 following what authorities say was a migrant smuggling attempt that ended with one man dead. Two men have been indicted in connection with the death.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rather than pay the thousands of dollars it would have cost to be smuggled from Mexico into the United States, two migrants, court documents allege, agreed to become smugglers themselves, operating the boat that would carry them and 14 others into San Diego.

The maritime journey May 20 resulted in the death of one passenger along the La Jolla shore and on June 2 spurred the grand jury indictment of both men.

15 people were taken into custody, with 10 rescued by lifeguards; the boat eventually went to shore near the Children’s Pool. La Jolla leaders call the loss of life ‘devastating.’

Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar is accused of piloting the panga-style boat that went aground near the Children’s Pool in the predawn hours of the smuggling attempt, and Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero is accused of assisting him with refueling and other tasks, according to the complaint filed in federal court in San Diego.

They are charged with bringing in undocumented immigrants resulting in the death of Rogelio Perez Gutierrez, a Mexican national.

The death was one of the latest in a recent string of smuggling fatalities in the region. Authorities paired news of the indictment with a grave warning to migrants considering such a journey: Don’t do it.

“Our region has experienced a wave of tragedies in recent weeks as migrants have placed their hope and their trust in smugglers who promise safe passage into the United States,” Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in a news conference. “Those were false promises, and those journeys have had devastating results.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman speaks alongside area federal law enforcement officials June 2 in San Diego.
Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman speaks alongside area federal law enforcement officials June 2 in San Diego. The officials called for migrants contemplating crossing the border illegally to be aware of the dangers following a wave of smuggling deaths in the region.
(Gregory Bull / AP)

His statements were followed by a prosecutor who, in Spanish, implored migrants not to trust smugglers with their lives.

The number of migrants killed trying to cross the border in San Diego and Imperial counties in the first eight months of this fiscal year has already surpassed last year’s total of 29.

The men aboard the panga in the La Jolla attempt — all Mexican nationals — told investigators they were paying $12,000 to $15,000 to be smuggled into the United States, according to the complaint. They all identified Soto and Geraldo in a photo lineup as operating the boat.

The complaint alleges that Soto and Geraldo told investigators that they agreed to work on the trip instead of paying the smuggling fee.

Before sunrise that day, Border Patrol agents saw the boat, along with people in distress in the water near Marine Street. San Diego lifeguards rescued eight in the water and two were apprehended on land, according to the complaint and interviews with officials.

The boat continued north and eventually capsized and beached near the Children’s Pool. Five other people were caught after they got out of the panga, and one migrant was found floating in the surf, drowned. No additional information has been released about him besides his name and nationality.

The 13 surviving passengers are being held as material witnesses in the prosecution of Soto and Geraldo.

In another fatal coastal smuggling case, Antonio Hurtado, accused of being the captain of a trawler-like boat that crashed May 2 off Point Loma, resulting in three deaths, was indicted June 1 on federal charges. A plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf. ◆