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Federal judge gives border smuggler 19-year prison term

December 16, 2006|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A notorious smuggler of humans who repeatedly led U.S. Border Patrol agents on high-speed chases on county freeways and roads was sentenced Friday to a 19-year prison term.

Jovanni Mendoza, 26, received the high end of the sentencing range from a federal judge who called him a public danger for his wild wrong-way rides in vehicles laden with migrant cargo.

In one of those pursuits last year, Mendoza crashed into a California Highway Patrol vehicle at 55 mph. Though no one was injured, Mendoza's car carried several migrants and 700 pounds of marijuana.

Smuggling runs like that have become more commonplace along the border, with some leading to deadly accidents.

"The county is going to be a lot safer with this dangerous smuggler off the roads," said Donald McDermott, a U.S. Border Patrol agent who supervised the unit that arrested Mendoza.

At the federal courthouse in San Diego, more than two dozen border agents showed up to urge a severe sentence. Mendoza was convicted of 10 counts of smuggling aliens and drugs.

Mendoza eluded prosecution for many years despite having frequent run-ins with authorities.

In one case, he was suspected of crossing the border in a van crammed with 31 migrants. In another, agents reported seeing him driving the wrong way down Interstate 8 east of San Diego.

Mendoza, a smuggler since he was 16, was not previously prosecuted because he had fled or witnesses could not be located. Because of scant resources, federal prosecutors in recent years have pursued only the most serious alien smuggling cases.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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