Federal authorities warned about a rise in human smuggling attempts by sea just two days before a boat believed to be carrying dozens of migrants capsized off the coast of San Diego, killing four.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently,” Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke from Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego sector warned in a Friday news release announcing increased enforcement along the coast.
“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.”
Just two days later, a 40-foot trawler-style vessel, believed to be carrying migrants attempting to enter the country illegally, broke apart after crashing into rocks off Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma, a rugged peninsula about 30 miles north of Mexico, officials said.
At least 30 people were forced into the rough surf where some drowned and others were sucked into the rip current, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said.
By late Sunday, 29 people were accounted for, including four who died, 24 who survived and one person who was last reported to be in critical condition, the US Coast Guard said in a news release. At least 27 people were hospitalized, the SDFD said.
“Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel, used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally,” Jeff Stephenson, a Border Patrol agent, told reporters during a press briefing.
“The smugglers, they don’t care about the people they’re exploiting. All they care about is profit. To them, these people are just commodities.”
There was no manifest so it was impossible for rescue teams to know how many souls were aboard. A crew on the US Coast Guard cutter Blackfin continued to search through the night for any others who were still missing, the agency said.
The man at the helm of the boat was taken into custody shortly after the incident and while he was “a bit out of it” following the crash, he was speaking to US Border Patrol agents at the scene, said Brandon Tucker, deputy director of air operations for CBP’s San Diego sector.
His identity and nationality were not immediately released.
In the Friday news release, CBP and US Coast Guard officials warned about the danger of human smuggling at sea amid the worst surge in illegal border crossings seen in two decades.
“When we interdict suspect vessels, we routinely find unsafe conditions, with people overcrowded into small boats without necessary safety equipment,” N. Michael Montgomery, CBP’s director of air and marine operations in the agency’s San Diego Air and Marine Branch, said in the release.
“The individuals on board these small vessels, trying to enter the U.S. illegally, frequently are not told of the dangers they will face on their journey and are not prepared. They will end up far out to sea, in a small boat without adequate food, water, safety gear, or protection against the elements.”
Capt. Timothy Barelli, commander of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, said human smuggling interdictions at sea “are as much rescues as they are law enforcement operations.”
“There is grave risk of capsizing, hypothermia, and drowning,” he said.