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SAN DIEGO (AP) – A packed boat used in an alleged human trafficking operation capsized Sunday and burst in strong waves along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen more, authorities said.

Rescuers, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies responded around 10:30 a.m. following reports of a ship overturned in waves near the rugged Point Loma Peninsula, according to the San Diego Fire Department. .

The initial call was for a handful of people overboard, but when rescuers arrived by boat and jet skis, they quickly realized “this was going to be a more serious situation with more people,” said Lieutenant Rick Romero of the San Diego Rescue Services.

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


Denis Poroy via AP

The wreckage and debris of a capsized boat wash up at Cabrillo National Monument, near where a capsized boat just off the coast of San Diego on Sunday, May 2, 2021, in San Diego. (AP Photo / Denis Poroy)

Seven people were pulled from the waves, including three who drowned, Romero said. One person was rescued from a cliff and 22 others managed to make their way ashore on their own, he said.

“Once we got to the scene, the boat was basically broken,” Romero said. “The conditions were quite difficult: 5 to 6 feet of surf, windy, cold.”

A total of 27 people were taken to hospitals with “a wide variety of injuries,” including hypothermia, Romero said. Most of the victims were able to reach the ambulances on foot, he said.

Officials said the group was overcrowded on a 12-meter cruise ship, larger than the typical wooden panga-style open-top boats often used by smugglers to smuggle people into the United States from Mexico. .

“Every indication from our point of view was that it was a contraband ship. We haven’t confirmed their nationality, ”said Jeff Stephenson, a US Border Patrol supervisory officer.

Under a pandemic-related order in effect since March 2020, migrants from Mexico and people from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras taken in at the border are immediately deported to the Mexico without the possibility of seeking asylum. President Joe Biden has exempted unaccompanied children from deportations, but the vast majority of adults are quickly returned without consequences.

Border patrol officers went to hospitals to interview survivors of the capsizing, including the captain of the boat Stephenson described as a “suspected smuggler.” Smugglers typically face federal charges, and smugglers are typically deported.

San Diego Fire Department spokesman Jose Ysea said upon arriving at the scene near Cabrillo National Monument, there was a “large field of debris” of shattered wood and others. objects in rough waters.

“In this area of ​​Point Loma, it’s very rocky. It is likely that the waves kept beating the boat, breaking it, ”he said.

There were life jackets on board, but it was not known how many or if any passengers were wearing them, officials said.

Among the rescuers was an anonymous Navy sailor who was in the area with his family and jumped into the water to help someone in an effort described by Romero as “tremendous help.”

Officials believed everyone on board was immediately found, but boat and plane crews continued to search the area for several hours looking for other potential survivors, Ysea said.

Border authorities on Thursday intercepted a panga-type vessel traveling without navigation lights 18 kilometers off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board. The crew took the 15 men and six women into custody. Officers determined that all were Mexican citizens without legal status to enter the United States, according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will face charges, he said.

Border Patrol said on Friday that law enforcement officials would step up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off San Diego this weekend.

As warmer weather arrives in San Diego, it is mistakenly believed that it will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agency said in a statement.

In early March, an SUV full of migrants collided with a semi-trailer in the farming community of Holtville, Calif., About 200 kilometers east of San Diego. The crash killed 13 of 25 people inside the 1997 Ford Expedition, including the driver, in one of the deadliest border-related crashes in US history.

Weber reported from Los Angeles.

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