Reporting from Ensenada — The immigrants heard the engine slow as the pilot steered through breakers. Twelve hours earlier, they had shoved off from a beach near Ensenada. Now, they were bobbing off Red Beach at Camp Pendleton. Out in the darkness, California beckoned.
"Jump out!" barked the pilot.
The 17 immigrants climbed over the side of the rickety boat, stumbling and splashing their way through the surf where U.S. Marines usually charge ashore in armored vehicles during amphibious assault exercises.
"I couldn't run because I had been sitting in the boat for so long," said Maribel Ruiz. "But the pilot kept yelling, 'Run! Run! Run!' It was terrible."
Photos: Mexican navy on patrol for smugglers
Ruiz, a 40-year-old mother of two, ended up face down on the sand as U.S. Border Patrol agents lighted the beach with high-powered beams and corralled her and the other Mexican illegal immigrants. The pilot turned the boat around and sped off toward Mexico.
Similar scenes are playing out with increasing frequency along the Southern California coast as smugglers launch more immigrant and drug-filled vessels than ever before toward the state — about one every three days on average. Vessels still land at San Diego-area beaches but are also traveling as far north as Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. Drug smugglers venturing even farther have been caught on Catalina Island and Santa Rosa Island, off the Santa Barbara coast.
Last year, 867 illegal immigrants and smugglers were arrested at sea or along the California coast, more than double the number in 2009. Border authorities have had to redeploy agents from the land border to the coast, where they scan the ocean with night-vision goggles and give chase across dunes instead of fields.
"I used to think that the [border] was the fence....All of a sudden this has become the front line in our efforts," said U.S. Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Steve McPartland at the San Clemente station, speaking to boaters and residents at Dana Point Harbor.
Immigrants have stumbled ashore in the shadow of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. In Del Mar, two smugglers ran their marijuana-laden boat onto a dog beach across from multimillion-dollar homes. At least eight immigrants ran up the bluffs to East Coast Highway after their boat beached at Crystal Cove near Newport Beach. Sixteen people aboard a broken-down boat were rescued about 70 miles offshore in October after being spotted by the amphibious assault ship Boxer.
Smugglers piloting overcrowded boats have led U.S. authorities on high-speed pursuits, and in at least one case U.S. agents shot out an engine to stop a fleeing pilot who had just dropped off a load of immigrants.
The surge in smuggling at sea started in 2007, in reaction to U.S. authorities' increasingly successful efforts at blocking traditional land routes. Smugglers at sea continually play cat-and-mouse games with Border Patrol agents, just as they do on land.
After U.S. authorities increased boat patrols, smuggling boat pilots adopted stealth-like maneuvers, traveling with their running lights off and going slow to limit the size of their wakes. When U.S. agents posted on high points along the coast began disrupting routes into San Diego beaches, smuggling groups posted lookouts to watch the agents and direct boat pilots to unmonitored areas.
Driving it all are enormous profits. Smugglers charge immigrants as much as $6,000, a boatload of 20 can bring more than $100,000. Immigrants are shuttled from Tijuana-area motels to launching sites along the coast.
Mexican Navy boat commanders, who patrol in Interceptor boats that can reach speeds of 40 knots, have stopped several vessels, including one last month with 15 people aboard.
On a recent patrol, a commander motored past the northernmost of the barren and windswept Coronado Islands, a smuggling staging ground just off Tijuana. Last year, the commander said he encountered 13 immigrants at the bottom of a rocky cliff. The smugglers said they would return, but instead abandoned them with only one jug of water.
Mexican authorities have been credited with cooperating with their U.S. counterparts, but their powers are limited. This month Mexican navy boats forced a smuggler on a personal watercraft to land near Rosarito Beach. Police arrested the man, but like other suspected human smugglers fleeing across the border, he was released because he had not committed a crime in Mexico.
U.S. and Mexican officials suspect that the smugglers' increasingly sophisticated and deadly tactics are a sign that Mexico's most powerful organized crime group, the Sinaloa drug cartel, may be involved in the maritime trade. The boat pilots are usually fishing boat operators recruited from Sinaloa, who are paid $2,000 to $10,000 per trip.