A Border Patrol agent. File photo

Two brothers who smuggled three sisters across the U.S.-Mexico border last year, leading to the women’s deaths when a snowstorm struck as they traveled through the mountains, were sentenced by a San Diego federal judge Friday to more than five years in prison.

Cecilio Rios-Quinones, 38, and Ricardo Rios-Quinones, 23, both of Chihuahua, Mexico, pleaded guilty last year to federal charges stemming from the deaths of Juana Santos Arce, 35; Margarita Santos Arce, 32; and Paula Santos Arce, 29; all of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Autopsies revealed the sisters died due to environmental hypothermia, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors said the group was ill-equipped for the mountainous trek, lacking clothing, shoes, shelter, food and other equipment needed to hike through the mountains.

In sentencing the brothers to 66 months in prison, U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo said: “Three women froze to death because defendants sought to benefit from their need to come here. It is tragic that someone wants to come here to work and dies, but it is more tragic that there are people who benefit from this, who treat them like cargo.”

A distress call was made at about 1:50 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2020, regarding five people who were lost and experiencing hypothermia, triggering a rescue operation initiated by the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue unit.

Agents found the group about a dozen miles north of the border. The sisters were found lying on the ground near a large boulder. Paula and Margarita were already dead, and Juana died later despite rescue efforts.

According to the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum, rescue personnel attempted to carry her down the mountain because she could not be airlifted due to the treacherous weather conditions and terrain, but she died just before 7:30 p.m.

In defense sentencing documents filed on behalf of both brothers, attorneys stated the men were working as foot guides to support their struggling families back home in Mexico.

Cecilio’s attorney, Michelle Betancourt, wrote that he was not informed about the possibility of such extreme weather conditions, as he was told by smugglers “that the route and the venture would be easy.”

Defense attorneys also alleged the men did what they could to help the sisters, despite their lack of supplies. They wrote that the brothers tried to hug the women for warmth and “did not abandon the women at any point.”

Cecilio eventually walked down the mountain until he could get cell phone reception and called 911.

Prosecutors alleged that 911 was called only once it was apparent one of the sisters had died and the other two were “stiff.”

“As such, the decision to call 911 appears to have been motivated by the defendants’ own self-preservation, not about getting help for the dying women,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlotte E. Kaiser wrote.

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