A suspected smuggling operation that resulted in at least three deaths off the San Diego coast came after the Border Patrol, Coast Guard and other agencies warned that an alarming increase in maritime smuggling could have deadly consequences.
The agencies announced Friday that they were dedicating "extra resources" to coastal land, sea and air – helicopters and planes – patrols through Monday. Those resources were tapped Sunday when an overloaded cabin cruiser broke apart in rough seas, prompting a harrowing rescue operation near the Cabrillo National Monument.
Rescuers found a large debris field of splintered wood and personal effects. Several people were plucked from the turbulent waters.
“There were people in the water drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” San Diego Lifeguard Services Lt. Rick Romero said. "The boat had basically been broken apart."
The number of victims remained unclear Monday. The Coast Guard said 29 people have reportedly been accounted for, including one person in critical condition, twenty-four who suffered hypothermia or other injuries, and, four people declared dead by local emergency medical services personnel. The local coroner’s offices, however, listed three dead including a 41-year-old woman, a 35-year-old woman and a man of unknown age.
A suspected smuggler was taken into custody. Two days earlier, Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke, U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego Sector, warned of a "dramatic increase" in maritime smuggling attempts.
“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,” Heitke had warned.
Spring and summer weather brings more recreational boating traffic – and a misperception that warmer weather will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agencies said. Heitke said San Diego residents would see an increase in various law enforcement and public safety agencies all along the San Diego coastline, including at beaches and marinas and in San Diego Bay.
On Thursday, a smaller, wooden panga boat traveling without navigation lights 11 miles off the coast with 21 people on board was seized. Two people are facing federal smuggling charges.
N. Michael Montgomery, chief of the Customs and Border Protection’s, Air and Marine Operations in San Diego, said people being trafficked usually aren't told how dangerous the journey really is, that they could end up far out to sea, in a small boat without adequate food, water, safety gear or protection against the elements.
Captain Timothy Barelli, commander, Coast Guard Sector San Diego, said Friday that 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," he said.
Two days later, the worst case scenario was realized.
“The reality is crossing the border illegally is unsafe no matter the method, especially at sea, with water temperatures what they are,” Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol, said Sunday. “The smugglers really just don’t care about the people they’re exploiting. They care about lining their own pocket for profit.”
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY; The Associated Press