SAN DIEGO (AP) — Two smugglers were sentenced to federal prison on Friday for leading three sisters from Mexico into California, where they froze to death in a mountain snowstorm.
Cecilio Rios-Quiñones, 38, and his brother, 23-year-old Ricardo Rios-Quiñones, received 5 1/2 years each in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
They pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and other charges.
Prosecutors said the men, who are from Chihuahua, led the women across the border on Feb. 10, 2020, and were in a rugged area near Mount Laguna, about a dozen miles north of the border, when a snowstorm struck. The woman, from Oaxaca, died from hypothermia.
The women, who came from poor rural areas and were seeking better lives, lacked proper clothing or supplies for a journey of several days through rain and snow, authorities said.
Defense attorneys argued that the brothers were only paid to be guides and hadn’t expected such severe weather. They huddled with the women, trying to keep them warm, and one finally hiked down the mountain to find a spot for cellphone reception to call 911, attorneys said.
A U.S. Border Patrol search and rescue unit found Margarita Santos Arce, 32; and Paula Santos Arce, 29, dead. Juana Santos Arce, 35, died later.
“It is tragic that someone wants to come here to work and dies, but it is more tragic that there are people who benefit from this, who treat them like cargo,” U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo said at the sentencing.
Cecilio Rios-Quiñones is regretful and “will forever live with the guilt of having been part of a criminal act that killed three women,” his attorney, Michelle Betancourt, wrote in a sentencing memo, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“I am a man of faith and I am very remorseful for what I did,” Ricardo Rios-Quiñones wrote in a letter to the judge. “We weren’t prepared for the storm and I would have never participated in this if I would have known someone would end up hurt or dead.”