A boat that capsized off California’s shores carrying some 30 people, who paid more than $15,000 each to be shuttled from Mexico to the United States, offers the latest evidence of how smuggling operations are heading out to sea.
Maritime smuggling attempts – such as one in which three people died after their vessel hit rocks – have seen a "dramatic increase" this year, according to officials with the San Diego Sector of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Figures from the San Diego Sector show that agents have made 909 arrests at sea and seized 76 vessels this fiscal year, which began in October 2020, according to data provided to InSight Crime by CBP officials.
Meanwhile, 2021 is already on track for a 40 percent uptick in maritime arrests.
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In an April 30 news release, CBP officials said that the San Diego unit was increasing patrols to stop dangerous sea crossings. Just two days after the warning, the deadly crash occurred.
The 40-foot trawler with 32 people aboard was in rough weather when it struck a reef near Point Loma, a peninsula some 20 miles north of the US-Mexico border, according to the CBP news release. Twenty-nine people survived the wreck; five had to be hospitalized. Three passengers, all of them Mexican nationals, died, according to the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office.
The alleged captain of the boat now faces charges related to the deadly crash, according to court documents. Antonio Hurtado, 39, has been charged with attempting to bring in undocumented migrants at a place other than a port of entry, and assault on a federal officer, according to a criminal complaint filed May 4 in the Southern District of California. Both charges are felonies.
Except for one man from Guatemala, all the passengers on the boat were from Mexico, according to the court documents. Only three of the passengers were under the age of 18.
According to the complaint, 21 of the surviving passengers identified Hurtado as the captain of the boat. They said they had paid between $15,000 and $18,500 for the trip.
InSight Crime Analysis
The increase in maritime smuggling attempts shows that smugglers are seeking more dangerous routes and charging a premium for the chance to cross into the United States – particularly amid a surge of Mexican adults who are hoping to find work.
In fiscal year 2020, agents tallied 1,273 arrests at sea, nearly double the 662 arrests made during the same period in 2019, according to CBP data provided to InSight Crime. Smuggling attempts also increased, from 195 to 309, and boats seized jumped from 80 to 118 vessels.
Just days before the latest crash, CBP agents intercepted a wooden canoe-like vessel with 21 people on board 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma. All were Mexican nationals.
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Illegal crossings, in general, are on the rise, driven in large part by an increase in single adults from Mexico who have made up nearly 60 percent of apprehensions along the US-Mexico border this fiscal year, according to CBP. This is a marked shift from past years, when asylum-seeking families, unaccompanied children and adults from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras accounted for most of the people attempting to enter the United States illegally.
With the US economy re-opening amid rapid vaccination uptake while Mexico still reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, many adults from Mexico are being lured north by the chance to find work.
The surge in apprehensions is also being driven by a federal policy, known as Title 42, that was implemented as a pandemic measure under former President Donald Trump and has continued under President Joe Biden. It calls for border officials to swiftly deport foreign national adults who attempt to cross into the country illegally.
Many are being quickly detained and returned to Mexico, only to try again. Smugglers are profiting, charging for multiple crossing attempts.
One US federal law enforcement agent in El Paso, Texas told the Dallas Morning News that Title 42 is “gold” to smuggling groups. “The harder we make it, the more profitable it becomes,” the agent said.
People have been willing to pay thousands of dollars to be ferried by boat in dangerous conditions, as in the case of the trawler that broke up off San Diego’s shores, killing three people.
“When we interdict suspect vessels, we routinely find unsafe conditions, with people overcrowded into small boats without necessary safety equipment,” said CBP San Diego Sector Air and Marine Operations Director Michael Montgomery in a news release.
“The individuals on board these small vessels, trying to enter the [United States] 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.”