Border Patrol increases presence along coast as maritime smuggling rises

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SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — Even before Sunday’s suspected maritime smuggling incident that sent 30 people to the hospital and left at least three dead, law enforcement officials were already ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently,” said Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke, U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego Sector. “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.”

For months, U.S. Customs and Border Protection had been dedicating extra resources to coastal patrols covering the “land, air, and sea.”

San Diego residents were told they were going to see an increase in various law enforcement and public safety agencies all along the San Diego coastline, including at beaches and marinas, San Diego Bay, and out along the coast.

Crews in helicopters and airplanes were to provide aerial patrols. The United States Coast Guard was also involved.

“Safety of life at sea is our highest priority,” said Capt. Timothy Barelli, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Diego. “Interdictions of suspected human smuggling at sea are as much rescues as they are law enforcement operations. There is grave risk of capsizing, hypothermia, and drowning.”

On Sunday, a 40-foot cabin cruiser, suspected of carrying more than two dozen undocumented migrants reportedly hit some rocks or a reef just off Point Loma in San Diego, breaking apart sending its passengers into the cold, choppy waters.

At least three people drowned and the survivors either made it to shore on their own or had to be rescued from the 60-degree water in what lifeguards described as 5- to 6-foot surf.

Officials with Mexican Consulate in San Diego said the number of those injured could be as high as 30 injured, adding that there were 25 men and eight women on board. The consulate also passengers ranged in ages from 18-40, although there could be some minors involved. One person remains in critical condition.

According to Border Patrol, the number of smuggling events on the water has gone up in recent years. Stats show during last year, more than 1,200 people were detained during 309 incidents, up 92 percent from 2019.

This year, there have been 157 maritime incidents already reported. Just last Thursday, 21 undocumented migrants were apprehended after being stopped by agents 11 miles from the coast.

Most smuggling attempts are done with small panga boats that can carry up to a dozen people, but the vessels are often not seaworthy and don’t always carry life jackets.

“When we interdict suspect vessels, we routinely find unsafe conditions, with people overcrowded into small boats without necessary safety equipment,” said N. Michael Montgomery, director of CBP’s Air and Marine Operations, San Diego Air and Marine Branch. “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.”

The Border Patrol has also been placing more resources and agents on Southern California beaches including horse patrols.

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