At least eight people were killed when two migrant boats capsized in shallow but deceptive swells in dense fog, authorities said Sunday. It is one of the deadliest maritime human smuggling operations in recorded history off the coast of the United States.
A Spanish-speaking woman on one of the boats called 911 on Saturday night to report that the other boat had capsized in the surf off Blacks Beach, according to Coast Guard Bosun Richard Brahm.
“The woman who called claimed that the boat that capsized was carrying 15 people, but that was only an estimate,” Brahm explained.
Crews from the Coast Guard and the San Diego Fire Department managed to recover the bodies of eight adults from the water, but heavy fog hampered the search overnight. Recovery efforts resumed on Sunday, but no more bodies were found.
Some survivors may have fled overland, including the woman who called 911. Authorities do not know her whereabouts.
San Diego Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said rescuers found two capsized boats in shallow water near shore. The surf was relatively calm, with swells around a meter (3 feet), but the sky was overcast and black.
“That area is very dangerous, even during the day,” Gartland said at a news conference. “It has a number of shoals and rip currents on the shoreline, so you might think you could get onto sand or waist-deep or knee-deep water and think it’s safe to get out. of the water, but there are huge holes in the coast. If someone makes it to those holes the rip currents will drag them along the shoreline and carry them back out to sea.”
Black’s Beach is located about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego, in a secluded area not far from the popular La Jolla shores. Its reputation as one of the best breaks in Southern California attracts many surfers.
Hundreds of marine human smuggling incidents occur each year off the coast of California, some of them fatal. In May 2021, a boat full of migrants capsized and broke apart due to strong waves off the coast of San Diego, leaving three dead and more than twenty injured.
Smuggling operations off the California coast have ebbed and fluctuated over the years, but have long been a risky option for migrants to evade heavily guarded land borders. The pangas roll in from Mexico in the middle of the night, sometimes going hundreds of miles north. Recreational boats try to blend in among the fishing and entertainment boats during the day.
South of the border there are many private and remote beaches with gates at the entrances between skyscrapers with magnificent views of the sea, some in construction halted because they ran out of money during construction. A fishing town where the narrow streets are lined with vendors selling fresh fish, Popotla is a favorite spot for migrant smugglers because of its long, sandy beach and relatively gentle surf.
At least some of the victims on Saturday were Mexican, according to the consulate in San Diego, but it is not known how many.