Last week's discovery of a suspected human smuggling boat at Malibu's and the capture of the alleged passengers found nearby were the latest example of a growing trend in how people are attempting to enter the United States illegally.
The U.S. nation's border with Mexico is more secure than it was in previous years, so some of those wanting to enter the U.S. illegally are turning to the ocean as a pathway. The journey, led by smugglers working for transnational criminal organizations, is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.
"[The smugglers'] main goal is to make money and not the well-being of their human cargo," said Rodolfo Zuniga, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol.
There have been three deaths at sea this year associated with illegal immigration in the San Diego area alone, Zuniga said. He recalled an incident in March when a boat heading toward U.S. waters capsized after hitting a buoy. The passengers fell in the water, but somehow the smuggler managed to put out a distress call and he was picked up by one of his colleagues.
"They left everyone [else] in the water," Zuniga said. "A few of the people held onto the buoy, others to the boat."
No deaths were reported in this incident, but it was an example of how dangerous the maritime journey can be, he said. Despite the risks, the number of people choosing this method to enter the U.S. illegally is on the rise. Last year, there were four reported incidents in Southern California and there have been 12 in the first six months of 2011, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (an agency of the Department of Homeland Security and the parent organization of the Border Patrol). There have been four reported incidents in the Malibu area.
The U.S. Border Patrol recorded 110 seizures and 867 people detained/deported for 2010, and 100 seizures and 570 people detained/deported to date.
Typically, the smugglers place 15 to 20 people in a type of out-board fishing boat called a panga, which is not designed for long-distance ocean travel. Heading 40 to 60 miles out to sea, the smugglers begin their northbound journey—often in the dead of night.
Most of the pangas originate from a small town called Popotla near Playas de Rosarito in Mexico, which is located about 15 miles south of Tijuana, Zuniga said. Passengers pay $7,000 to $9,000 for the ride. Pangas have been found as far north as Santa Barbara County.
Initially, five people were detained in the Leo Carrillo incident Friday. That number had doubled by the end of the day. The 30-foot panga was found abandoned, but it contained 20 18-gallon containers of gasoline.
The eight male and two female Mexican nationals were placed in federal custody on suspicion of being in the U.S. illegally, and were later deported, Zuniga said.
The deportation process is expedited for those who enter the U.S. illegally through maritime smuggling operations. If they are caught attempting to enter the country illegally again, the people can be charged with a felony and face imprisonment of up to 20 years.
The penalties for maritime smuggling operations are more severe because of the increased dangers they pose, Zuniga said. Anyone entering the U.S. illegally through the ocean will be formally deported, he said. A formal deportation means the person must wait five years before applying to enter the U.S. legally.
"Undoubtedly, our goal is to prevent death," Zuniga said.
Zuniga said to prevent loss of life, Malibu residents and visitors should report suspicious activity along the coast. To do this, contact the Sector San Diego U.S. Coast Guard Joint Harbor Operations Center at 800-854-9834.