A suspected smuggling operation that resulted in at least three deaths off the San Diego coast Sunday came after the Border Patrol, Coast Guard and other agencies warned that an alarming increase in maritime smuggling could have deadly consequences.
The agencies announced Friday that they were dedicating “extra resources” to coastal land, sea and air – helicopters and planes – patrols through Monday. Those resources were tapped Sunday when an overloaded cabin cruiser broke apart in rough seas, prompting a harrowing rescue operation near the Cabrillo National Monument.
Rescuers found a large debris field of splintered wood and personal effects. Seven people were plucked from the turbulent waters; three did not survive. One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 made it to shore on their own. Twenty-seven people were taken to hospitals with hypothermia or other injuries.
“There were people in the water drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” San Diego Lifeguard Services Lt. Rick Romero said. “The boat had basically been broken apart.”
A suspected smuggler was taken into custody. Smuggling cases usually result in the smugglers facing federal charges while the people being trafficked are sent home.
Two days earlier, Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke, U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego Sector, warned of a “dramatic increase” in maritime smuggling attempts.
“All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits,” Heitke had warned.
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Spring and summer weather brings more recreational boating traffic – and a misperception that warmer weather will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agencies said. Heitke said San Diego residents would see an increase in various law enforcement and public safety agencies all along the San Diego coastline, including at beaches and marinas and in San Diego Bay.
On Thursday, a small wooden boat traveling without navigation lights 11 miles off the coast with 21 people on board was seized. Two people are facing federal smuggling charges.
N. Michael Montgomery, chief of the Customs and Border Protection’s, Air and Marine Operations in San Diego, said people being trafficked usually aren’t told how dangerous the journey really is, that they could end up far out to sea, in a small boat without adequate food, water, safety gear or protection against the elements.
Captain Timothy Barelli, commander, Coast Guard Sector San Diego, said Friday that interdictions of suspected human smuggling at sea are as much rescues as they are law enforcement operations.
“There is grave risk of capsizing, hypothermia and drowning,” he said.
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Two days later, the worst case scenario was realized.
“The reality is crossing the border illegally is unsafe no matter the method, especially at sea, with water temperatures what they are” Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol, said Sunday. “The smugglers really just don’t care about the people they’re exploiting. They care about lining their own pocket for profit.”
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press