The day after 32 Chinese nationals were found in two shipping containers at the Port of Los Angeles, federal and local authorities said Sunday that they were trying to unravel what appeared to be a human smuggling operation.
"Obviously, our intention at the moment is to develop a smuggling case," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The officers and crew of the NYK Athena, a Panamanian-flagged ship, were not considered suspects in the case, port officials said. Twenty-eight men and four male teenagers apparently trying to sneak into the U.S. were found inside the cargo containers Saturday after a crane operator spotted several stowaways emerging from a hole in one of the containers.
The containers had been loaded onto the NYK Athena about two weeks ago during a stop in Shekou, China, port officials said. The manifest for one of the containers said it contained clothing. Investigators said the stench coming from the containers was "overwhelming," according to immigration officials.
Inside they found discarded food packages, blankets and containers overflowing with human waste. The stowaways had traveled with food and water, however, and authorities said that all were in good condition Sunday. The stowaways had set up small, battery-powered fans in the containers.
They will have a chance to meet with a U.S. immigration services official and may ask for asylum, as some others smuggled from China to California have done, Kice said. If they were denied asylum or didn't seek it, they would be returned to China, perhaps as passengers on the same vessel, officials said.
The incident marked the first case of container stowaways at the port in nearly a year, and port officials said that heightened security and improved relations with Chinese authorities appear to have reduced human smuggling efforts.
Chinese stowaways have turned up before at California ports. Last February, 17 Chinese men were found in a container at the Port of Los Angeles, having paid as much as $50,000 for the trip.
There have been numerous instances of such attempts. In 2002, 10 Chinese nationals paddled ashore in Laguna Beach, naked and clinging to makeshift floats. Authorities later said that they had paid about $10,000 each.
In 2002, seven Chinese men were found inside a container at the Port of Long Beach. In 1999, 30 men arrived at the port aboard two ships sailing from Hong Kong. The men on those vessels paid $40,000 to $50,000.