An alleged smuggling operation that has left at least three people dead off the coast of San Diego came after border patrol, the coast guard and other agencies warned that an alarming increase in maritime smuggling could have deadly consequences.
The agencies said on Friday they were devoting “additional resources” to coastal land, sea and air patrols – helicopters and planes – until Monday. Those resources were tapped on Sunday when an overloaded cruise ship shattered in rough seas, triggering a heart-wrenching rescue near the Cabrillo National Monument.
Rescuers found a large field of chipped wood debris and personal belongings. Several people were pulled out of the turbulent waters.
“There were people in the water drowning, sucking the rip current in there,” said Lt. Rick Romero of the San Diego Rescue Services. “The boat had essentially been broken.”
The number of victims remained unclear on Monday. The Coast Guard said 29 people had been identified, including one in critical condition, 24 with hypothermia or other injuries and four people declared dead by emergency medical service personnel. The coroner’s offices have listed three deaths, including a 41-year-old woman, a 35-year-old woman and a man of unknown age.
A suspected smuggler has been taken into custody. Two days earlier, chief patrol officer Aaron Heitke of the US border patrol, San Diego area, had warned of a “dramatic increase” in maritime smuggling attempts.
“All of these illegal sea crossings are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many of them shift from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for profit,” Heitke warned.
The San Diego boat capsized: 3 dead, 27 hospitalized in suspected smuggling operation
Spring and summer weather conditions increase pleasure craft traffic – and the mistaken perception that warmer weather will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agencies said. Heitke said residents of San Diego would see an increase in the number of law enforcement and public safety agencies all along the coastline, including beaches and marinas and in San Diego Bay.
On Thursday, a wooden panga boat traveling without navigation lights 11 miles off the coast with 21 people on board was seized. Two people face federal contraband charges.
Michael Montgomery, head of air and maritime operations for Customs and Border Protection in San Diego, said trafficked people are usually not told how dangerous the trip is – they could end up far away in sea in a small boat without adequate food or water. , safety equipment or protection from the elements.
Captain Timothy Barelli, Area Commander of the Coast Guard San Diego, said on Friday that bans on suspected human trafficking at sea are as much rescues as they are law enforcement operations.
“There is a serious risk of capsizing, hypothermia and drowning,” he said.
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Two days later, the worst case happened.
“The reality is that crossing the border illegally is dangerous by any method, especially at sea, with water temperatures what they are,” said Jeff Stephenson, a border patrol supervisor on Sunday. . “The smugglers really don’t care about the people they exploit. They care about filling their own pockets for profit. “
Contributor: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press