The Washington Post

Boats capsize near San Diego, 8 dead


Eight people have died and several more are believed to be missing after two fishing boats capsized late Saturday near the coast of San Diego as part of what city and federal authoritie­s suspect was a human smuggling operation.

Authoritie­s say they received a 911 distress call about 11:30 p.m. regarding two capsized boats near Black’s Beach in San Diego. First responders recovered eight bodies and found two overturned panga-style boats, which are small, open boats with outboard engines.

“This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego,” James Gartland, the city’s chief lifeguard, said during a Sunday morning news conference.

Gartland said a Spanish-speaking woman contacted San Diego police Saturday night and said there were about 15 people on one of the vessels and approximat­ely eight on the other.

Agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, local police and state and city lifeguards all responded.

When rescuers rushed to the scene, they found eight bodies on the beach and in the water. Both boats were capsized, while several life jackets and fuel barrels were strewn. No survivors were found, leaving several individual­s unaccounte­d for, including the woman who had called 911. Authoritie­s said search efforts are continuing. CBP is now conducting an investigat­ion.

Capt. James Spitler, commander of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector, said Sunday that at least 23 people have died at sea since 2021.

“The real number of deaths in the California coastal region is unknown,” he said.

“Often these boats are overloaded, the maintenanc­e is poor,” he said. Smugglers try to take advantage of the area’s high cliffs and rocky coves as loading points, he added, but especially foggy weather Saturday night made waters difficult to navigate. “It’s very challengin­g for anybody to operate in those conditions. They were likely one of the very few mariners out there at sea.”

Federal authoritie­s did not link the boats to any specific human smuggling operation.

“I can’t speak to any specific groups that are responsibl­e for maritime smuggling, but our relationsh­ip is quite strong with our partner agencies down there in Mexico,” said Eric Lavergne, a Border Patrol special operations supervisor.

There has been a 771 percent increase in human traffickin­g in the Southern California coastal region since 2017, Spitler said. In recent months, the Biden administra­tion has increased restrictio­ns on illegal border crossings, leading to a sharp decline in illegal border land crossings in January, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security. However, tighter enforcemen­t on land along the U.s.-mexico border has contribute­d to an increasing number of people trying to reach California by sea in recent years, according to authoritie­s.

Border Patrol spokesman Jason Givens warned Sunday against the dangers of crossing the border illegally by sea, saying that human smugglers’ main concern “is how much they will be paid, not the welfare of the individual­s.”

“It’s essential for anyone looking to use the services of these smuggling organizati­ons to understand they are putting their life at risk,” Givens said in a statement to The Washington Post.

A deadly shipwreck in May 2021 illustrate­d the perils of human smuggling operations via water. A 40-foot trawler-style boat carrying 32 people into the United States capsized off the coast of San Diego. Three Mexican migrants drowned and more than two dozen were injured.

The vessel’s pilot, Antonio Hurtado, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 18 years in prison last fall for illegally smuggling 32 migrants from Baja California, Mexico. That vessel hit rocks in rough weather near Point Loma, a peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, and broke apart, according to the San Diego UnionTribu­ne. Hurtado jumped off the ship, abandoning the passengers and making it safely to land. The migrants had reportedly paid $15,000 to $18,000 each to be smuggled into the United States.

A surge of migrants from the Caribbean region has also been trying to sail to the United States on fragile, makeshift boats. Many have taken perilous journeys to Florida via the Bahamas, mostly from countries such as Haiti and Cuba that have been ravaged by economic turmoil and political instabilit­y.

Several ill-fated trips in recent years have put a spotlight on a growing migration crisis in the Caribbean, where U.S. and Bahamian authoritie­s last year said they were finding ships on a weekly basis with as many as 200 people aboard.

The United Nations has estimated that at least 967 people perished in the rough waters of the Caribbean between 2014 and 2021. U.S. authoritie­s have acknowledg­ed the number is likely much higher, repeatedly warning migrants to avoid taking such ventures and putting their lives at risk.

 ?? Gregory Bull/associated PRESS ?? Boat salvager Robert Butler picks up life preservers in front of one of two boats sitting on Black’s Beach in San Diego on Sunday.
Gregory Bull/associated PRESS Boat salvager Robert Butler picks up life preservers in front of one of two boats sitting on Black’s Beach in San Diego on Sunday.

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