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2 plead guilty in deadly La Jolla smuggling attempt

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Posted at 2:00 PM, Aug 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-18 17:00:33-04

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - Two men pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges stemming from a human smuggling attempt in a boat that stalled off the coast of La Jolla, leading to the drowning death of one of the vessel's occupants.

The boat's captain, Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar, and another man who acted as a refueler -- Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero -- entered guilty pleas Wednesday in connection with the capsizing of a panga boat on May 20. Both men told authorities that they agreed to pilot the vessel in lieu of paying smuggling fees to enter the United States, according to the complaint filed against them earlier this year.

Prosecutors say that with 16 people aboard, the vessel was overloaded, leading to engine failure that caused it to stall in open waters.

According to a statement of facts read in open court, the boat stalled on the morning of May 20 about 80 yards from shore, off Marine Street Beach. The boat's occupants were told the water was shallow, and instructed to remove their life jackets and jump into the water, according to the recitation of facts read by U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Crawford.

RELATED: 1 dead in suspected smuggling incident involving panga boat off La Jolla coast

Fifteen people, including Aguilar and Romero, were recovered by rescue personnel, but Rogelio Perez Gutierrez died.

Migrants rescued in the smuggling attempt said they paid up to $15,000 to be smuggled, according to prosecutors. Sentencing was scheduled for Dec. 13.

The fatality was one of several recent human smuggling attempts highlighted by San Diego federal authorities in a public plea to anyone considering a perilous border crossing against making such a journey.

Others that occurred in the Southern California region include the March 2 crash near Holtville that led to the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals when an overloaded SUV crashed into a semi-truck on an Imperial County highway, and the May 2 boat capsizing off the coast of Point Loma that claimed the lives of three Mexican migrants.