SAN DIEGO, CA – Eight people died when two migrant-smuggling boats approached a San Diego beach amid heavy fog and one capsized in the surf, authorities said Sunday, calling it one of the deadliest human-smuggling operations in the United States

A woman speaking Spanish on one of the pango-style boats called 911 Saturday night to report that the second vessel had capsized in waves off Black Beach, according to U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Bram.

“The female caller said there were 15 people on the boat that overturned, but that was just an estimate,” Bram said.

The Coast Guard and San Diego Fire-Rescue pulled the bodies of eight adults from the water, but heavy fog hampered the search for more victims.

San Diego Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said rescuers found two boats capsized in shallow water near shore. According to him, there were approximately 23 people on the two boats.

Two overturned boats rest on Blacks Beach, Sunday, March 12, 2023, in San Diego. Authorities say several people have died and crews are searching for other victims.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

No more victims were found in the water, and officials said some or all of the remaining passengers may have escaped across a beach about 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of downtown San Diego.

A Coast Guard cutter combed the area early Sunday, and a helicopter crew joined the search after the weather cleared at midday.

Hundreds of maritime smuggling cases occur each year, and Saturday’s accident was one of the deadliest involving migrants in the United States, said Eric Lavergne, a spokesman for the Border Patrol. In May 2021, a boat full of migrants capsized and crashed in heavy surf along the rocky coast of San Diego, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen.

Daniel Eddy, deputy chief of operations for San Diego Fire-Rescue, said Black Beach, which is jointly owned by the city and state, has a long field of debris.

Pangs, small open boats with outboard motors often used in smuggling operations, often come ashore along the wide stretch of sand, which is also known as Torrey Pines Town Beach and Torrey Pines State Beach, officials said.

The surf was modest late Saturday, with swells around 3 feet (about 1 meter), but Gartland said there are hidden dangers in the area.

“This area is very dangerous, even during the day. There are a number of sandbars and coastal rip currents, so you may think you can land in the sand or reach waist-deep, knee-deep water and think you may be safe to get out of the water, but inshore part has long pits. If you step into these pits, these rip currents will pull you along the shore and back into the sea,” he told reporters at a Sunday morning news conference.

The nationality of the passengers is unknown. Under President Joe Biden, illegal crossings have skyrocketed, with many migrants surrendering to Border Patrol agents and being released into the United States to face their cases in immigration court.

The pandemic rule, which is set to expire on May 11, bars migrants from seeking asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but the application fell disproportionately on Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans because those were the only nationalities Mexico agreed to take.

As a result, residents of those four countries are more likely to try to avoid arrest, knowing they are likely to be deported under public health regulations known as Title 42 powers. Mexico recently began taking back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans under Sec. 42.

Smuggling off the California coast has ebbed and flowed over the years, but has long been a risky alternative for migrants to avoid heavily guarded land borders. Pangas come in from Mexico in the dead of night, sometimes flying hundreds of miles north. Pleasure boats tend to blend in with the fishing and pleasure craft during the day.

South of the US border, there are many secluded private beaches with gated entrances between high-rises with stunning ocean views, some of which are only partially built because funds ran out during construction. Popatla, a fishing village whose narrow streets are lined with traders selling a wide variety of local catch, is favored by smugglers for its large sandy beach and relatively gentle waves.


Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles.

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