At least 8 dead as suspected human smuggling boats capsize off San Diego



Eight people have died and several more are believed to be missing after two fishing boats capsized late Saturday near the coast of San Diego as part of what city and federal authorities suspect was a human smuggling operation.

Authorities say they received a 911 distress call about 11:30 p.m. regarding two capsized boats near Black’s Beach in San Diego. First responders recovered eight bodies and found two overturned panga-style boats, which are small, open boats with outboard engines.

“This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego,” James Gartland, the city’s chief lifeguard, said during a Sunday morning news conference.

Gartland said a Spanish-speaking woman contacted San Diego police Saturday night and said there were about 15 people on one of the vessels and approximately eight on the other.

Agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, local police and state and city lifeguards all responded.

When rescuers rushed to the scene, they found eight bodies on the beach and in the water. Both boats were capsized, while several life jackets and fuel barrels were strewn.

No survivors were found, leaving several individuals unaccounted for, including the woman who had called 911. Authorities said search efforts are continuing. CBP is now conducting an investigation.

Capt. James Spitler, commander of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, said Sunday that at least 23 people have died at sea since 2021.

“The real number of deaths in the California coastal region is unknown,” he said.

“Often these boats are overloaded, the maintenance is poor,” he said. Smugglers try to take advantage of the area’s high cliffs and rocky coves as loading points, he added, but especially foggy weather Saturday night made waters difficult to navigate. “It’s very challenging for anybody to operate in those conditions. They were likely one of the very few mariners out there at sea.”

Federal authorities did not link the boats to any specific human smuggling operation.

“I can’t speak to any specific groups that are responsible for maritime smuggling, but our relationship is quite strong with our partner agencies down there in Mexico,” said Eric Lavergne, a Border Patrol special operations supervisor.

There has been a 771 percent increase in human trafficking in the Southern California coastal region since 2017, Spitler said. In recent months, the Biden administration has increased restrictions on illegal border crossings, leading to a sharp decline in illegal border land crossings in January, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security. However, tighter enforcement on land along the U.S.-Mexico border has contributed to an increasing number of people trying to reach California by sea in recent years, according to authorities.

Border Patrol spokesman Jason Givens warned Sunday against the dangers of crossing the border illegally by sea, saying that human smugglers’ main concern “is how much they will be paid, not the welfare of the individuals.”

“It’s essential for anyone looking to use the services of these smuggling organizations to understand they are putting their life at risk,” Givens said in a statement to The Washington Post.

A deadly shipwreck in May 2021 illustrated the perils of human smuggling operations via water. A 40-foot trawler-style boat carrying 32 people into the United States capsized off the coast of San Diego. Three Mexican migrants drowned and more than two dozen were injured.

The vessel’s pilot, Antonio Hurtado, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 18 years in prison last fall for illegally smuggling 32 migrants from Baja California, Mexico. That vessel hit rocks in rough weather near Point Loma, a peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, and broke apart, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Hurtado jumped off the ship, abandoning the passengers and making it safely to land. The migrants had reportedly paid $15,000 to $18,000 each to be smuggled into the United States.

A surge of migrants from the Caribbean region has also been trying to sail to the United States on fragile, makeshift boats. Many have taken perilous journeys to Florida via the Bahamas, mostly from countries such as Haiti and Cuba that have been ravaged by economic turmoil and political instability.

Several ill-fated trips in recent years have put a spotlight on a growing migration crisis in the Caribbean, where U.S. and Bahamian authorities last year said they were finding ships on a weekly basis with as many as 200 people aboard.

Two siblings tried reaching the U.S. by sea to reunite with their mother. Only one of them made it.

The United Nations has estimated that at least 967 people perished in the rough waters of the Caribbean between 2014 and 2021. U.S. authorities have acknowledged the number is likely much higher, repeatedly warning migrants to avoid taking such ventures and putting their lives at risk.


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