Felicitas Gurrola is an octogenarian leader in an arena that has turned increasingly violent and is dominated by large, mostly male organizations that choose perilous routes through remote mountains and deserts.
U.S. authorities say the 84-year-old headed a mostly female group that led up to 80 people a month to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, through the busiest U.S. border crossing. Guides then took the undocumented migrants to the Los Angeles area.
Gurrola has agreed to plead guilty Friday to charges that she led a ring of smugglers who guided migrants to the United States illegally with imposter documents, her attorney said.
When she began, Gurrola and her family were typical of other smugglers. But mom-and-pop organizations have faded away over the last decade as border security has increased and larger, more violent organizations have muscled smaller competitors aside.
Despite all that, Gurrola wasn't deterred, as outlined in an affidavit by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Migrants who met her at Tijuana's Suites Royal Hotel were given immigration documents belonging to others and told to memorize the information, according to the ICE affidavit. Officials say they were taken to a beauty salon to look more like the photos on the documents.
Guides accompanied them to the San Ysidro border crossing and then on commercial buses to the Los Angeles area, where they got paid in cash by the migrants' families, usually around $3,500 a person, according to an affidavit
The organization handled between 60 and 80 migrants a month during peak times and between 40 and 60 month during slower patches, the affidavit says. That amounts to monthly revenue of about $280,000 in peak times.
The April 1 affidavit says Gurrola is 84 years old.
She was indicted for immigrant smuggling in 1982 but fled to Mexico, according to the affidavit. She boasted that she smuggled immigrants for more than 40 years in one wire intercept during the ICE investigation that began in 2009.
Gurrola, who lived in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, and 10 others were charged in April with immigrant smuggling, including her daughter, a woman who managed the Tijuana hotel and several guides.
Gurrola has agreed to plead guilty in federal court to conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens for financial gain, Thomas Matthews, her attorney, said Wednesday. Under an agreement with prosecutors, the government will seek no more than three years and one month in prison, he said.
Her daughter, Hilda Moreno Gurrola, agreed to plead guilty to the same charge, said David Baker, her attorney. She will face at least five years in prison but could ask a judge for less time if certain conditions are met, he said.
"The amazing thing about this organization is that it was all run by women, even the foot guides," Baker said.
Debra Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego, and Daniel Zipp, the prosecutor handling the case, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.