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Maritime captain sentenced for deadly 2021 migrant smuggling incident

Aug. 13 (UPI) -- The captain of a boat that capsized off the coast of California in 2021 while carrying dozens of undocumented migrants from Mexico has been sentenced for human smuggling charges after three people died.

Antonio Hurtado, 40, was sentenced in a federal court Friday to 18 years in prison on charges including "attempted bringing in illegal aliens resulting in death" and "attempted bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain" as well as assault on a federal officer, the Justice Department announced.

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Hurtado pleaded guilty to his charges in April, court documents obtained by UPI show.

Smugglers had ferried 32 migrants from Puerto Neuvo in Mexico, about 45 miles south of San Diego, to the Coronado Islands off the coast of Mexico where Hurtado was waiting with his 40-foot boat named the Salty Lady on May 1, 2021.

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The undocumented migrants, which included three unaccompanied minors, had each agreed to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States, prosecutors said.

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Hurtado then piloted the boat through rain and rough waters overnight to the territorial waters of the United States as he repeatedly used controlled substances, according to passengers.

The boat suffered an engine failure around 6 a.m. on May 2 and Hurtado, who had just been roused by his passengers after falling unconscious, refused their pleas to call for help from the U.S. Coast Guard.

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"The vessel drifted closer and closer to land, inevitably running aground approximately 50 yards from shore near Point Loma," the Justice Department said in the news release.

"Knowing his boat was doomed as waves battered it and it began to list on its side, Hurtado jumped into the water and made his way to shore, abandoning his passengers."

Park rangers stationed at nearby Cabrillo National Park watched as the boat was ripped apart by the pounding surf and called the Coast Guard, which responded with multiple agencies.

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"There's no boat there, it's all debris," Rick Romero, San Diego Fire Rescue lifeguard lieutenant, said in a news conference at the time.

Rescuers were able to save 29 undocumented migrants from the water but three did not survive. They were identified by prosecutors as Maricela Hernandez-Sanchez, Victor Perez-Degollado and Maria Eugenia Chavez-Segovia.

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Prosecutors noted in court documents that there were not enough life jackets on the vessel and the other migrants were transferred to local hospitals for evaluation and treatment for their injuries.

Hurtado was arrested at the scene and transported to a Border Patrol station for processing, where he admitted to agents that he was "coming down" from using controlled substances.

When Border Patrol agent Xalick Castorena knelt next to Hurtado to place him in an ankle restraint to transport him to a local hospital, the captain kneed them in the face.

U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino called it the "most egregious case" she had ever experienced as a judge in Southern California during his sentencing hearing.

"Human smugglers have no respect for human life, as is demonstrated by this defendant," said Chad Plantz, special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations San Diego.

"The deaths in this investigation could have been prevented had the defendant not treated these victims like dispensable cargo."

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