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Smuggling ship tragedy off San Diego is latest in deadly wave of ocean border crossings

Just after midnight on a Friday in late October 2021, the captain of a fishing boat sailing nearly 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. I saw a dim light in the distance. In what a Coast Guard pilot later described as a miracle, the captain had seen the occupants of a disabled and overloaded fishing boat calling for help.

The 25 migrants on board had been stranded at sea for three days in a boat meant to contain only a few people. After all, they were lucky: they had survived.

As maritime smuggling attempts have increased along the Southern California coast in recent years, so have mishaps and deaths. Authorities and experts say several forces have played a role in both the rise in such incidents and the attention they have received.

Saturday night offered the latest and deadliest example of the dangers of such crossings, when at least eight people were killed after two suspected smuggling boats capsized near Black’s Beach in San Diego.

“All of this points to how dangerous border crossings, especially sea crossings, have become,” said Pedro Ríos, a human rights advocate and director of the US-Mexico Border Program at the American Friends Service Committee.

The 911 caller who alerted authorities to the incident said between 16 and 23 people were aboard the two boats. Authorities found no survivors, although it was not yet clear Sunday if there were additional victims or if survivors fled before emergency crews reached the beach.

Either way, officials called it one of the deadliest maritime incidents in San Diego history, if not the deadliest, saying it highlighted the dangers of such border-crossing attempts.

“Every time they get on a boat to go north, their lives are in danger,” Capt. James Spitler, commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, told reporters Sunday morning. At least 23 people have died since 2017 at sea crossings, he said, but added that “the true number of deaths in the California coastal region is unknown. Often these ships are overloaded (and) poorly maintained.”

At least three immigrants died off the coast of San Diego County last year. A Man and a Woman drowned in November when his skiff capsized off Imperial Beach, and one man was killed and three others injured in April when his skiff capsized near Ocean Beach.

In 2021, at least four people died, all in May. Earlier this month, a boat carrying at least 32 migrants crashed and broke up on a reef off Point Loma. Three people died and the others suffered injuries. Later that month, one person died and at least eight others were hospitalized when a panga capsized off La Jolla.

A year earlier, at least four people died trying to cross the ocean. Two died in February when his ship capsized off the coast of Imperial Beach, and two others died in August off the ocean beach.

Federal authorities have rescued, or intercepted and detained, hundreds more people during that time.

Smugglers turning to the Pacific Ocean are not new: Two people were killed in January 2010 off Torrey Pines State Beach, but attempts have increased significantly.

The southern California coastal region has seen a 771% increase in maritime human smuggling incidents since 2017, Spitler said Sunday.

So far this fiscal year, which began last October, Border Patrol has logged about 300 sea crossings involving swimmers, surfboards, pangas and other types of vessels, according to Eric Lavergne, special operations supervisor for the San Diego sector. Diego from the Border Patrol.

Apprehensions at sea during smuggling attempts increased more than 90% in 2020 over the previous year, jumping from 662 to 1,273, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Spitler, the Coast Guard commander, argued that not all sea-border crossers are immigrants seeking a better life.

“This is part of a transnational criminal organizing effort,” he told reporters Sunday at a news conference outside the San Diego lifeguard headquarters. “These people are often subjected to labor and sex trafficking when they arrive.”

Federal officials have also warned in recent years that not all ships leaving Mexico land near the border, and some now bypass San Diego County.

Maritime smuggling has increased significantly in Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2021, officials responded to a record 12 incidents in the Long Beach, Malibu, Newport Beach, Palos Verdes and San Pedro areas. The first landing of a panga on Santa Catalina Island was also reported that year.

Saturday’s deaths were the latest in a series of large-scale smuggling tragedies in Southern California. In March 2021, two months before the boat accident that left three victims dead, 13 migrants were killed and 12 others injured when their pickup truck collided with a large truck in Imperial County.

Ríos, the human rights activist, said the dangerous crossings are the result of US policies.

“Many of these people may have wanted to show up at ports of entry, perhaps for asylum claims,” he said. US enforcement efforts and policies have “pushed people into taking much more dangerous and extreme measures.”

Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that expels asylum seekers and other migrants caught crossing the border without documents, is among those measures, Ríos said.

Border Patrol officials have also said that criminal groups have tried to circumvent tighter border security by taking to sea.