An investigation was ongoing Monday into a suspected human smuggling operation after a 40-foot cabin cruiser capsized in rugged waters off the coast of San Diego, killing at least three people and injuring dozens, according to officials.
The U.S. Border Patrol said there is every indication to believe the boat was a smuggling vessel used to traffic migrants into the U.S. illegally but the investigation into where the boat came from and its path into U.S. waters was still ongoing.
The boat, which did not look like pangas often used in human smuggling operations, likely blended in with other commercial boats as it made its way along San Diego’s coast, according to Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol.
When the “severely overcrowded” boat approached the peninsula of Point Loma, near the Cabrillo National Monument and Point Loma Tide Pools, it lost control and overturned. At least 32 people were on board.
San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero said the situation when they first arrived on scene was dire. Conditions were rough, with waves 5 to 6 feet in height.
“There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” he said, adding that the boat, “had basically broken apart.”
Several people witnessed the crash from the shore, including State Assemblyman Chris Ward, who said he was “shaken” by the horrible tragedy and that it was traumatic to witness the violent capsizing and people pouring out into the ocean. He added that he was furious about the circumstances that forced these individuals to put themselves into harm’s way.
Seven people were pulled from the waves, including three who drowned, Romero said. One person was rescued from a cliff and at least 22 others managed to make it to shore on their own, he said.
On Monday, after calling off a search for more potential victims at about 7:15 a.m., the U.S. Coast Guard updated its count to show 32 people had been accounted for, with 29 people found alive and three declared dead either at the scene or local hospitals. One person remained in critical condition.
The boat did not have a manifest so it was not at first clear everyone on board was accounted for, investigators said.
Warning: The video below may contain graphic imagery
Video shows a vessel overturned and broken apart that was carrying 30 people in a possible human smuggling operation, officials said.
“After careful consideration using the information from our on-scene crews, partner agency input and the magnitude of the response efforts, the Coast Guard suspended our search on Monday morning,” said Captain Timothy Barelli, the Sector San Diego commander.”
The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office reported two women, 35 and 41 years old, and one man of unknown age had died but did not release their names as their families have not yet been notified.
The person believed to be operating the boat — and believed to be the suspected smuggler, according to agent Stephenson — was being interviewed by USBP. Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.
The nationality of those on board was not yet disclosed but the San Diego Mexican Consulate is currently in contact with officials involved in the investigation in case the victims are Mexican nationals.
Days earlier, USBP Chief Agent Aaron M. Heitke said the agency had recently seen an increase in the number of illegal crossings at sea and would be ramping up coastal patrols this weekend as a result.
As warmer weather comes to San Diego, there is a misperception that it will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agency said in a statement.
On Monday, after calling off a search for more potential victims, the U.S. Coast Guard updated its count to show 32 people had been accounted for, with 29 people found alive and three declared dead either at the scene or local hospitals. One person remained in critical condition.
“We were putting more resources out in the water to interdict vessels like this and we announced it in advance to try to deter as much as we could to try and send a message to smugglers,” Stephenson said.
On Thursday, border officials intercepted a panga-type vessel traveling without navigation lights 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board. The crew took all 15 men and six women into custody. Agents determined all were Mexican citizens with no legal status to enter the U.S., according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will face charges, the agency said.
In March, 13 people were killed and 13 others were injured when an SUV suspected to be used for human smuggling collided with a semi-truck hauling gravel near the U.S.-Mexico Border in Imperial County east of San Diego County. It was one of the deadliest border-related crashes in U.S. history.