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Deaths of 8 migrants off California coast illustrates risks of maritime human smuggling

The capsizing of two boats off Southern California in a suspected human smuggling operation that left eight people dead, one of the deadliest maritime smuggling tragedies in the area, illustrated the risks migrants take when undertaking such voyages.

“If your boat is overturned, your chances of surviving in these cold, rough waters of the Pacific are much lower, especially if you’re not an experienced swimmer,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University in Houston.

Bodies and debris were recovered Sunday from a 400-yard area near Black’s Beach in San Diego after a Spanish-speaking woman called 911 around 11:30 p.m. Saturday saying her small, motorized fishing boat had washed ashore with another boat that capsized nearby with eight people aboard.

The accident took place in an area authorities called hazardous even during daylight. Heavy fog hampered Sunday’s search by officers of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as local police and fire rescue agencies.

Why are such incidents happening?

“When you begin to see people beginning to try to reach the U.S. by boat, this is a sign that something else is failing,” Payan said. “Immigrants are being pushed back into Mexico and being asked to wait indefinitely, and much of Mexico is in the grips of hundreds of criminal gangs that are pretty good at offering quick entry into the U.S. for immigrants who reach a level of desperation.”

He said that was illustrated by an incident Sunday in which a large group of migrants rushed the U.S. border in El Paso, which required mobilization of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s riot control team.

“When there’s no solution to your situation and you’re always in danger of being victimized by crime in Mexico, and then along comes a criminal organization that offers you a way, you may take it,” Payan said. 

What are the risks of illegal maritime border crossings?

The risks for such voyages are severe, experts say, and often involve overcrowded and poorly maintained vessels purposely piloted in weather providing low visibility to avoid detection.

Jason Givens, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said illegal maritime crossings can be “extremely dangerous” and said the agency urges migrants to enter the country legally.

“Human smugglers treat people as a commodity,” Givens said. “Their No. 1 concern is how much they will be paid, not the welfare of the individuals.”

In an issue paper on maritime smuggling in 2011, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime called migrant smuggling by sea “the most dangerous type of smuggling for the migrants” and said it should be a priority concern for national response.

Though such operations at the time were thought to comprise less than 1% of all smuggling operations, “tighter land border controls have encouraged smugglers to be more creative with an increase in the use of small fishing vessels from Mexico to California,” the U.N. report said.

How often do these incidents happen?

Since October – the start of the fiscal year – about 600 people had been apprehended in maritime smuggling operations in the San Diego area through the end of February, Givens said. More than 2,500 people were intercepted in such incidents in fiscal year 2022.

Capt. James Spitler of the Coast Guard’s San Diego sector told reporters at least 23 people have died in maritime incidents since 2017, according to the San Diego Tribune. He added that “the real number of deaths in the California coastal region is unknown.”

Last year, Antonio Hurtado of Southern California pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from an incident in May 2021 in which a vessel he was piloting with 32 migrants aboard experienced engine failure and washed aground. Three of the passengers died after Hurtado abandoned the vessel, which eventually broke apart.

How should the problem be addressed?

In its 2011 report, the United Nations said that trying to isolate maritime smuggling can be misguided, noting the practice “generally occurs as part of a wider smuggling process often involving land and/or air movements.”

Payan said that should current U.S. policies continue – such as Title 42, a pandemic-related public health policy that gives the U.S. the power to turn away migrants, including those seeking asylum, without offering them a chance to make their case – more such incidents may follow. 

“Most migrants are still making their attempts on land, but if this goes on and the Biden administration stiffens border measures and pushes more migrants back into Mexico – as it has threatened to do – people will probably risk their lives more,” Payan said. “This is a moneymaking opportunity for organized crime, and we will see more people drown.”