At least eight people are dead after two alleged smuggling boats reached Black's Beach amid heavy fog and one capsized in the surf Saturday night, San Diego Fire-Rescue said.
At about 11:30 p.m. SDFD Lifeguards received a 911 call from a Spanish-speaking woman saying she was on a panga boat with eight people that made it to shore at Black's Beach and that another panga boat with 15 people had capsized and people were in the water, SDFD said.
Lifeguards found it very difficult to access the beach because of the high tide but eventually found two overturned pangas and lifeless bodies about 800 yards north of the base of Black Gold Road, La Jolla.
Additional lifeguards and firefighters arrived along with Customs and Border Protection and medics to help the victims.
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Lifeguards at the scene found seven bodies deceased and while pulling victims from knee-deep water, CBP officers found an eighth-person deceased.
"After an hour of searching and recovering bodies, we [San Diego Lifeguards] were in recovery mode for about five hours after that," said Chief James Gartland, with SDFD Lifeguards.
Gartland said no survivors were found at the scene. Several lifejackets and fuel barrels were also found. All victims were turned over to the San Diego County Medical Examiner.
"This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego," Gartland said.
Recent Smuggling Attempts in Southern California
Since 2017, we've had a 771% increase in human trafficking in the Southern California coastal region and since 2021, there have been 23 lives lost at sea, said Capt. James Spitler, sector commander for the U.S. Coast Guard San Diego.
"This is not necessarily people trying to find a better life," Spitler said. "This is part of a transnational criminal organization effort to smuggle people into the United States. These people are often labor-trafficked and sex- trafficked when they arrive."
In 2021, at least three people died and more than two dozen people were rescued from the water off the coast of Point Loma after a packed boat being used in a suspected human smuggling operation capsized and broke apart in powerful surf. The driver was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.
Neither a description of the victims nor their nationalities has been released. It was not immediately clear what caused the incident. Investigators have not yet said where the boat was coming from or where it was headed.
Several agencies responded to the scene including San Diego Police, CBP, U.S. Coast Guard, State Lifeguards and UC San Diego Police.
The Coast Guard suspended its search for the missing migrants on Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
Black's Beach is a secluded section of beach beneath bluffs in Torrey Pines on the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, San Diego.
There are reasons people are making the risky journey, immigration attorney Brian Lopez said.
"A lot of the common themes we find are people are escaping dire conditions which could pose a threat to their lives or the lives of their loved ones. it could be based upon persecution for their political beliefs, it could be because the area where they live in their home country is overrun by criminal elements that the government is unwilling or unable to control. There could be any number of factors," Lopez said.
Lopez said he sees no end in sight for panga boat smugglings.
"I think we are still going to see unfortunate incidents like these whether they occur on the shores, or in a remote desert area, but the issue is not going to go away," Lopez said.
No other information was available.
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