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Tightened borders force immigrant smugglers to take risky sea routes

Guard troops and customs authorities arrest 14 suspected illegal immigrants after their boat overturns in heavy surf, two days after a group of 15 were found stranded on Santa Cruz Island.

July 13, 2011|By Sam Quinones and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • People examine a panga boat that overturned, throwing a group of suspected illegal immigrants into heavy surf near Crystal Cove State Beach.
People examine a panga boat that overturned, throwing a group of suspected… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Before dawn Tuesday, California National Guard troops spotted a suspected smuggling boat moving up the coast from San Diego.

The boat had no lights and after about an hour, it headed for shore at Crystal Cove State Park, near Newport Beach in Orange County.

In the rough surf, the small craft flipped, spilling its occupants into the ocean.

No one was hurt. But federal customs authorities, working with the Guard troops, arrested 14 suspected illegal immigrants, all from Mexico; another immigrant escaped and remains at large.

The incident came two days after 15 immigrants from Mexico were rescued from Santa Cruz Island, where, according to authorities, they were abandoned by a smuggler.

The two cases are only the latest in an increasing number of forays by traffickers seeking to avoid increased enforcement on land. The panga boats used by smugglers are not designed for deep-water trips and are unsafe, officials said.

"In recent weeks we've had multiple instances where smuggled aliens have been ejected from these boats, suffering fairly significant injuries," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Over the last year, boatloads of illegal immigrants have been captured from San Diego to Malibu. In one case, a woman with a broken nose and a man with a broken leg were hospitalized.

As the battle over illegal immigration has increasingly shifted to the California coast, a regional task force has been formed by several agencies to combat maritime smuggling. In the next month, Kice said, a full-time patrol boat, financed by the Department of Homeland Security, will be seeking out smugglers.

Last year, 867 illegal immigrants and smugglers were arrested at sea or along the California coast, more than double the number in 2009. Most landings occurred on San Diego and Orange County beaches. In the last year, the U.S. attorney's office in Orange County has brought charges against at least 17 individuals tied to maritime smuggling.

Meanwhile, those engaging in human trafficking have also been smuggling drugs, which has led to discoveries of vessels on Santa Catalina Island and Santa Rosa Island. Smuggling groups have also resorted to posting lookouts to watch for authorities.

On Saturday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection marine agents stopped a pleasure boat off the coast of Dana Point and found 500 pounds of marijuana. The agents arrested two men aboard and two more at a nearby dock, according to the agency.

The first maritime loads of immigrants were found along the San Diego coast in 2009. As authorities cracked down, smugglers began sailing farther north before attempting to come ashore.

Moreover, Kice said, "smuggling organizations are taking these loads farther and farther out to sea." Some boats have been tracked 50 miles to 100 miles offshore, she said.

In May, authorities tracking a maritime smuggling operation raided an Anaheim apartment and found nine illegal immigrants, wet and caked with sand. Their boat had come ashore in Carlsbad in San Diego County after developing engine trouble.

sam.quinones@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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