SAN DIEGO — The captain of a boat that sunk off the coast of San Diego last year, killing three migrants and leaving more than two dozen others hurt, has been sentenced to 18 years in prison.

A federal judge issued the penalty for 40-year-old Antonio Hurtado on Friday, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.

Judge Janis L. Sammartino called the failed smuggling attempt, which happened in May 2021, “the most egregious case I’ve ever had in my courtroom in over 15 years in the Southern District of California.”

According to prosecutors, a group of 32 migrants paid Hurtado between $15,000 and $18,000 to ferry them illegally into the U.S. from Baja California. Hurtado then piloted the boat through rainy conditions and rough seas, using drugs and ignoring his passengers’ concerns.

“Along the way, according to many of the smuggled migrants, Hurtado repeatedly used controlled substances and even lost consciousness for over an hour before passengers were finally able to wake him,” the U.S. attorney’s office wrote. Eventually the boat lost power, but the captain ignored pleas to call authorities for help.

As he tried to bring the vessel to shore, Hurtado ran the boat aground about 50 yards from land in the Point Loma area.

“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 – who had concealed themselves in
the cabin and below deck at his direction – and leaving them to fend for themselves,” the attorney’s office wrote. “When the vessel broke apart from the pounding of the surf, they were thrown into the water.”

In the end, three people died, despite an expansive rescue effort by multiple agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, San Diego Harbor Police, lifeguards, Border Patrol and the National Parks Service (as the crash happened near Cabrillo National Monument).

Rescuers were able to save 29 others, all of whom suffered various degrees of injury but survived the crash.

Hurtado admitted captaining the boat in a trial held earlier this year. In addition to charges related to the deadly smuggling attempt, he was sentenced Friday for assault on a federal officer after kneeing a Border Patrol agent in the face during his arrest.

“Thirty-two passengers put their savings and their lives in this defendant’s hands. His reckless behavior and egregious failure to seek assistance put every one of them at serious risk and caused the tragic loss of three lives,” U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in a written statement following the sentencing.

“This sentence recognizes the serious nature of these crimes and stands as a stern warning to smugglers: your profit-driven schemes will fail; we will prosecute you for your crimes; and we will obtain justice for your victims.”