With her thick, wavy gray hair and heavily lined face, Felicitas Gurrola defies the image of today's typical Mexican smuggler.
At 84, she directed a female-dominated ring that prosecutors say led 80 people a month to the Los Angeles area — and she managed to hang on to the family-run smuggling business for more than 40 years when most mom-and-pop rings were driven out by increasingly violent men guiding illegal immigrants along perilous routes.
In an almost inaudible voice, the Spanish-speaking octogenarian pleaded guilty Friday to charges that she directed a smuggling organization that guided migrants across the heavily fortified U.S.-Mexico border by giving them imposter IDs to present to immigration authorities at the crossing in San Ysidro, Calif.
As an interpreter explained that she faces the maximum penalty of five years in prison, Gurrola stared ahead with a calm, almost expressionless face, glancing at the back of the tattooed Guatemalan man who stood in front of her on charges of sneaking into the United States, in a separate case. Her 56-year-old daughter, Hilda Moreno, and another woman in the ring also pleaded guilty to the charges. They face up to 15 years in prison, a stiffer sentence in part because of their younger age, defense attorneys said.
"Imagine being 85 years old and incarcerated for the first time," said Gurrola's attorney, Tom Matthews. "To say this is difficult for her is a gross understatement."
At his request, Judge Nita Stormes agreed to support keeping Gurrola jailed with Moreno so her daughter can help her. Matthews said he plans to ask at a Nov. 9 sentencing hearing for the judge to consider Gurrola's age and health issues, which include arthritis in her hands, elbows and knees, and gout.
The route Gurrola's ring used from Tijuana, Mexico, to San Diego is the busiest U.S. border crossing in the world. Matthews said she ran her business for four decades without hurting any of her clients — unlike many of the traffickers who have left migrants stranded in the desert's searing heat or drawn them into fast-moving Rio Grande waters, where they have perished.
"She was not shoving them in car trunks or building compartments," he said. "This was a far cry from that. For what it counts, she passed them safely. Everyone involved had a chaperone and looked after them. Safety was always their concern. It was an old-school operation. She apparently ran it efficiently and safely and now she's paying the consequences. Even a short sentence will end up being a life sentence for her."
Under an agreement with prosecutors, the government will seek no more than three years and one month in prison, Matthews said.
When she began, Gurrola and her family were typical of other smugglers at the time.
Decades ago, Mexicans in small towns and villages who wanted to seek work in the United States often would hire a trusted family member or neighbor who had already been and who would agree to guide them for a small fee.
But mom-and-pop organizations have faded away with the dramatic increase in border security. Migrant smugglers started charging thousands of dollars in fees to pay for risking the journey through increasingly remote areas to avoid detection, and the illegal industry has become a booming, billion-dollar business attracting violent, organized crime networks — and even drug cartels — that muscled smaller competitors aside.
Despite all that, Gurrola continued to work, with the help of her daughter and others. She met migrants at Tijuana's Suites Royal Hotel where she would give the migrants immigration documents belonging to others and told them to memorize the information, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement affidavit. Her ring — of almost all women — would then take the migrants 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 a month during slower patches, the affidavit says. That amounts to monthly revenue of about $280,000 in peak times.
Gurrola, who lived in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, and 10 others, including her daughter, were charged in April with immigrant smuggling. Gurrola was earlier 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.
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.
Gurrola's 51-year-old niece, Maria de Los Angeles Rios, flew in from Culiacan, Mexico, along with several other of her family members, many of them senior citizens, to attend Friday's hearing. An 81-year-old friend who declined to give her name said she was so nervous she almost forgot her pills, pulling out a bag of medicine from her purse.
Los Angeles Rios said her aunt is a caring, hard-working person who supported her family and was always there to listen. She said she does not believe the charges, saying Gurrola made her money renting houses in Tijuana.
"She's been an inspiration that at her age she still worked, while being there for her children, and had so much energy to do it all," Los Angeles Rios said. "I have always seen her as a great example of a complete woman."
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.