The mission of U.S Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations Unit is to save lives, which is a hard thing to do amid dangerous offshore conditions. Despite the deadly waters, CBP says they’ve seen an increase in human smuggling off San Diego’s coast, and agents blame smugglers who disregard the threat of the open ocean and prey on people who dream of a better life in the United States.
“The environmental factors -- it’s cold, they don’t have proper clothing, food or water,” CBP Agent Evan Wagley explained. “They’re really in bad shape when we find them. Most of the time, they don’t have flotation devices and many of them can’t swim.”
CBP says smugglers sometimes have to navigate waves up to 12 feet high, often times in pangas or recreational boats that aren’t hard to capsize.
Get San Diego local news, weather forecasts, sports and lifestyle stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC San Diego newsletters.
“The amount of space between the top of the boat and the waterline is extremely short, and that can lead to capsize very easily,” Agent Wagley said.
When boats to tip, passengers don’t have long until they start to experience hypothermia.
“Shock, you start getting numbness of your extremities, fingers ,arms and legs making hard to swim and eventually drown,” Agent Wagley added. That’s why Air and Marine Unit agents say every second is precious when they spot smuggling vessels in the open sea.
One migrant told NBC 7 he spent more than 80 hours in a 30-foot panga with 12 people trying to make it to San Diego from Baja California. He said there wasn’t a minute along the excursion when he didn’t fear for his life.
Since October, 229 illegal maritime crossing attempts were made in the San Diego sector, an approximate increase of 80%, according to CBP. There were 356 during all of 2021.
“The ocean can be very dangerous for someone who is inexperienced,” U.S. Coast Guard Officer Carlos Lopez said. He’s participated in hundreds of maritime rescues between San Diego and Baja California. “Boats capsized because of the wind, waves and the surf that comes in from one side, and the wind waves from the other side making it a dangerous condition.”
There are also dangerous rock formations hiding in the cover of night which can also build up kelp that can jam propellers. And down by the border, there’s a buildup of offshore surf where boaters don’t typically expect it. The CBP says these extreme conditions can present the perfect trap for inexperience boaters, leading to tragic loss, like when a 40-foot boat carrying more than two dozen people capsized near Point Loma last May.
CBP agents say Human smugglers make migrants believe that crossing by sea is easy, fast and safe, when the reality is, the sea can turn into a monster at any second.
Now that it’s summertime and weather conditions are more favorable, CBP says smugglers will try to blend with the boat traffic. In response, CBP will have more Air and Marine agents ready than ever before.
“We have top of the line radar, top of the line infrared cameras on our vessels,” Agent Wagley said. “These boats are pretty fast, so once we make contact with one of those smuggling boats, chances are it’s not going to get away.”
Despite advanced technology, agents say it’s impossible to know what happens in every corner of the more than 200 miles of ocean they patrol...
“What is most unfortunate is the people we don’t know about. There’s probably pangas out there that have capsized and everyone is around and we have no way of knowing when that happens,” Wagley said.