85-year-old leader of human smuggling ring pleads guilty
An 85-year-old Chula Vista woman accused of illegally bringing immigrants into the U.S. through San Diego pleaded guilty Friday to charges that she led the family-operated smuggling ring.
Thomas Matthews confirmed Friday that his client, Felicitas Gurrola, pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens for financial gain.
As part of the operation, migrants would meet Gurrola at a Tijuana hotel, where they were given immigration documents that belonged to others and told to memorize the information, according to an April 1 affidavit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The migrants were then taken to a beauty salon, where they would undergo makeovers to look more like the people pictured on the documents.
ICE officials said Gurrola’s guides would take the migrants through the San Ysidro border crossing and then to the Los Angeles area via commercial bus. After the migrants arrived in Greater L.A., their families would pay guides cash for the trip, usually about $3,500 a person, the affidavit said.
The group typically brought in 60 to 80 people a month during high traffic times, the affidavit said, and 40 to 60 people during slow months.
Gurrola, who was indicted for immigrant smuggling in 1992 but fled to Mexico, was charged in April with smuggling, along with 10 others, including her daughter, the affidavit said. On a wire intercept from a recent ICE investigation, Gurrola says she had been smuggling immigrants for more than 40 years.
Matthews said his client faced a maximum of five years in prison. But prosecutors said they would seek a punishment of between 2 1/2 years and three years and one month.
Matthews said his client’s case was unusual because it was an “old school” smuggling operation done in a safe manner compared with the more dangerous operations common now. Gurrola and her guides would take migrants through the border’s crossing points rather than try to sneak them through the countryside, and no one was ever injured in the process, he said.
“You don’t really see that anymore. This wasn’t a case where people were dying of starvation in the hills … or suffocating in cars,” Matthews said. “This was one of the only old traditional operations that’s been unveiled.”
“This was all done in a very safe, efficient, traditional manner,” he added, saying he believed that would work in his client’s favor when she is sentenced Nov. 9.
-- Kate Mather