California (Greg Moran-Sign on San Diego) – The 85-year-old matriarch of a human-smuggling ring that operated for decades out of a Tijuana hotel was sentenced to 2½ years in federal prison Thursday.
Felicitas Gurrola De Mason sat quietly in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, her shoulder-length gray hair framing her lined face. During the hearing, she spoke softly through an interpreter.
“I’m remorseful and I ask for forgiveness,” she said, before acknowledging, “I’m very nervous. I can’t speak.”
Her daughter, Hilda Moreno Gurrola, 54, sat to her left and on her right sat Guadalupe Ojeda Zamora, 50, who is not related to Gurrola but was raised by her in Tijuana.
The trio were the organizers of an unusual smuggling ring that was run by women for years, efficiently shuttling an unknown number of illegal aliens through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
In an era where human-smuggling rings have turned ruthless and violent and are run largely by men, the Gurrola operation stands out. Defense lawyers said no one was stuffed into secret compartments in cars or marched through blistering desert heat with sometimes fatal results.
“This was a very well organized, safe operation,” said Gurrola’s lawyer, Tom Matthews. “No one was ever put in danger.”
But Zipp said that should not matter, and labeled the three the “leaders and managers of a large-scale alien-smuggling ring.”
The ring operated out of the Suites Royal Hotel in Tijuana, Zipp told Sabraw. Illegal aliens would be staged there, given a room and provided identification papers that had been stolen. The illegal aliens would then have their physical appearance altered to match the documents.
Guides would then walk them through the port of entry. Investigators had the ring under surveillance for months earlier this year. During that time, some 100 clients were led into the United States this way, Zipp said.
Each client was charged $3,000 to $3,500, he said — though defense lawyers disputed that and said the women did not profit as much as prosecutors said.
Sabraw gave Moreno the same sentence as her mother, while Ojeda received a 37 months sentence.
Gurrola was indicted in 1982 for smuggling but fled to Mexico. Over time, the warrant for her arrest expired.
She had been living in a family home in Chula Vista and traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico before authorities busted the ring in April, charging 11 people in all.
The house will be forfeited to the U.S. government.