Wreckage and debris from a capsized boat washes ashore at Cabrillo National Monument near where a boat capsized just off the San Diego coast Sunday, May 2, 2021, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

San Diego boat wreck kills 3, shows risks of ocean smuggling

San Diego boat wreck kills 3, shows risks of ocean smuggling

SAN DIEGO — A tractor-trailer slams into an SUV at an intersection on a remote California desert highway, killing 13 of 25 people crammed inside the late model Ford Expedition.

A man dangles a toddler over a border wall near Santa Teresa, New Mexico, allowing her to fall on her face before he disappears into Mexico.

A 40-foot (12.2-meter) cabin cruiser overloaded with 32 people capsizes just off the San Diego coast, killing three and critically injuring another person. The others aboard survived, with one in critical condition.

The incidents, which occurred over the last two months, show how smugglers put migrants at extraordinary peril for profits, whether by car, on foot or at sea.

The Coast Guard on Monday ended its search for survivors of the San Diego boat wreck, which happened on a bright Sunday morning near tidepools of Cabrillo National Monument, a popular spot for tourists and hikers.

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary said there were 25 men and eight women aboard, the majority of them Mexican citizens. It was unclear why the Mexican government counted one more person than the Coast Guard.

Passengers ranged from 18 to 40 and were being turned over to U.S. immigration authorities to be returned to Mexico.

The vessel had the hallmarks of a smuggling attempt from Mexico gone awry, though authorities stopped short of confirming it. The boat captain was in custody but Kelly Thornton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego, declined to comment, saying prosecutors were “carefully reviewing the matter.”

The SUV crash occurred in March and authorities said it was one of two vehicles crammed with occupants that entered the U.S. through an opening cut into the border wall. All were being smuggled. Those inside the other SUV were not involved in the accident and were picked up by the Border Patrol.

The toddler in the New Mexico incident was believed dropped into the country by a smuggler and survived the fall.

Smuggling off the California coast has ebbed and flowed over the years but has long been a risky alternative for migrants to avoid heavily guarded land borders. Small boats with single- or twin-engines known as “pangas” enter from Mexico in the dead of night, sometimes charting hundreds of miles north. Recreational boats, like the one that capsized Sunday, try to mix in unnoticed with fishing and pleasure vessels during the day.

The Border Patrol tallied 1,273 smuggling arrests on the California coast during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, a 92% increase from the same period a year earlier. Since Oct. 1, it has made 909 arrests.

“The smugglers, they don’t care about the people they’re exploiting,” said Jeff Stephenson, a Border Patrol agent and spokesman. “All they care about is profit. To them, these people are just commodities. You can see that in the way they treat them — inadequate safety equipment, really poorly equipped vessels.”

Migrants sometimes get lifejackets but they tend to be old and tattered, Stephenson said.

Boats are known to launch in Mexico from Playas de Rosarito, a city that borders Tijuana and is popular with American expatriates. It’s about 20 miles (32 kilometres) south of San Diego.

There are many secluded, private beaches with gated entrances between high-rises with magnificent ocean views, some only partially built because funds dried up during construction. Popotla, a fishing hamlet where narrow streets are lined with vendors selling a wide variety of local catch, is favoured among smugglers for its large, sandy beach and relatively gentle waves.

In October, a 42-year-old Mexican man was sentenced to nearly seven years in federal prison for his role as captain of a panga boat with six migrants aboard, two of whom died after the engine stalled in rough waters off the coast of Imperial Beach, California. The pilot, who had a handheld GPS device, told investigators he was paid $5,000 to guide the boat, which launched in Ensenada, a port city south of Playas de Rosarito.

The same pilot was convicted of smuggling for leading a vessel to Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station near Los Angeles, in January 2019. Police found 14 people hiding amid brush and buildings in Huntington Beach.

On Friday, the Border Patrol alerted the public and boaters to increased surveillance in San Diego over the weekend, one day after intercepting a panga-type vessel off the San Diego coast. All 21 people aboard — 15 Mexican men and six Mexican women — were taken into custody and two were likely to be charged with smuggling crimes.

The pilot in Sunday’s wreck was likely trying to blend in with pleasure craft, said Mike Unzueta, who witnessed an increase in marijuana smuggling from Mexico at sea when he led U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in San Diego in the late 2000s, then a shift to people and finally to hard narcotics.

“It’s a tragic story and it’s a sad, sad story but it just underscores the risks that desperate people are willing to take,” he said.

The original call was for a handful of people overboard, said San Diego Lifeguard Services Lt. Rick Romero, who was among the first on scene. There were life preservers on board, but it wasn’t known how many or whether any passengers were wearing them.

“There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” Romero said.

The passengers got lucky that a Navy sailor was in the area with his family and jumped in to assist. Cale Foy, an active duty rescue swimmer, told KGTV-TV in San Diego that he and a Navy SEAL trainee who was also there instantly knew what to do.

“Before we jumped in the water we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah I’m comfortable going into the water and shore break, washing machine effect is what we call it, and he’s like, ’Yeah, I’m good for it too,’ so we smiled at each other and we jumped in and did what we had to do,” Foy said.

If confirmed the survivors were trying to enter the country illegally they likely will be taken to Mexico and won’t face any penalties in the U.S.

Under pandemic-related public health orders in effect since March 2020. Mexicans and people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who are in the country illegally are immediately expelled to Mexico without an opportunity to seek asylum.

President Joe Biden exempted unaccompanied children from expulsions but the vast majority of adults are still quickly removed from the country without facing legal consequences, prompting many to try again until they succeed.

Elliot Spagat, The Associated Press


Just Posted

Ella Stoner, five, is ready to cut off her hair and donate it to A Child’s Voice Foundation. (Photo by Lauren Stoner Photography)
Central Alberta girl to donate her ‘princess hair’ to A Child’s Voice Foundation

A five-year-old girl from Rimbey has never had a haircut before. Now,… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta adds 1,195 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Red Deer has dropped to 760 active cases

Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr
Central Alberta MLAs comment on UCP members kicked out of caucus

A pair of central Alberta MLAs have commented on the two United… Continue reading

Contributed photo
Johanna Hannaford: Central Alberta designer offers inclusive clothing

By Stephanie Rhodes Local designer Johanna Hannaford’s inclusive clothing creations are smashing… Continue reading

Red life-ring with splash
Started from the bottom: How a family business started and grew in central Alberta

By Carina Moran We started our business in the basement of our… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks' Zack MacEwen (71), Travis Boyd (72) and Jimmy Vesey (24) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during third period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 15, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Big third period lifts Vancouver Canucks to 4-1 victory over Edmonton Oilers

Canucks 4 Oilers 1 EDMONTON — Matthew Highmore scored twice in the… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Canada’s vaccine rollout operation won’t miss a beat with new military leader: expert

DARTMOUTH — The sudden departure of the senior military officer in charge… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec premier argues province has power to amend constitution in letter to Trudeau

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault has written a letter to Prime… Continue reading

A demonstrator stands in front of riot police officers during a banned protest in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Paris, Saturday, May, 15, 2021. Marches in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were being held Saturday in a dozen French cities, but the focus was on Paris where riot police countered organizers who said they would defy a ban on the protest, ordered on the grounds that it risked turning violent. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)
Police fire tear gas on banned Palestinian march in Paris

PARIS (AP) — French riot police fired tear gas and used water… Continue reading

Photo by The Associated Press
NYC Pride parade bans police; Gay officers ‘disheartened’

NEW YORK (AP) — Organizers of New York City’s Pride events said… Continue reading

Welcoming cowboy boots at the historic and colourful Last Chance Saloon in the ghost town of Wayne near Drumheller, Alta., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. The bar and hotel are up for sale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘It was a going concern’: Remaining bar and hotel in Alberta coal ghost town for sale

WAYNE, Alta. — Built during the First World War, it survived the… Continue reading

A letter from a bottle that washed up in New Brunswick in 2017 is shown in an undated handout photo. A team of researchers from Université du Québec à Rimouski are trying to solve the mystery of whether a letter in a bottle that washed up in New Brunswick in 2017 was indeed from a young victim of Titanic shipwreck or simply a hoax. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, N. Beaudry, UQAR *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Real or hoax? Quebec scholars probe mystery letter allegedly from Titanic passenger

MONTREAL — Researchers from Université du Québec à Rimouski are trying to… Continue reading

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication between the federal Transport Department and the Canadian Transportation Agency regarding passenger refunds throws into question the independence of the CTA, an arm’s-length body. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Emails reveal close communication between government, transport regulator on refunds

OTTAWA — Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication… Continue reading

Most Read