Voyages of desperation
By Douglas Morino Staff Writer
Posted: 08/20/2011 09:12:04 PM PDT
The skiff sat overturned a few dozen yards off the Palos Verdes Peninsula coastline, drifting to sea with the outgoing tide.
George Uraguchi was walking down a cliff near Bluff Cove for his routine early-morning paddleboard session when he saw the panga, a Mexican-style fishing boat, sitting in the ocean below. A dozen blue fuel canisters bobbed in the glassy water nearby.
"I didn't know if I was going to find bodies or not," said Uraguchi, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident. "I ran back up the cliff and called 911."
Although police did not find anyone in the water or on land, Uraguchi said he saw life jackets in the water and wet clothing lining the trail up the cliff. He found little else.
"I didn't see a soul," said Uraguchi, who jumped in the water to search for survivors after calling police.
For the stream of migrants and narcotics illegally flowing north, land routes once trusted by experienced smugglers are increasingly being exchanged for risky sea journeys.
The panga first discovered by Uraguchi earlier this month was the third suspected smuggling vessel found off the Peninsula coastline since May. Similar vessels have been discovered in waters off Orange County, Malibu and as far north as Ventura and Santa Barbara.
"We've realized this is growing threat, something that is occurring much more frequently," said Border Patrol Agent Michael R. Jimenez, a spokesman for the agency stationed in San Diego.
Authorities and federal immigration officials say the recent uptick can be attributed to two primary factors - tighter security along the United States-Mexico border and increased bravado among smugglers seeking to move migrants and narcotics north.
"It's a sign of desperation," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement homeland security investigations in Los Angeles. "They're tunneling under the border, flying over using ultralight aircraft and using sea routes rather than crossing land borders. All three of those methods are not nearly as efficient for them. They can't move as much and it's not as profitable."
Evidence suggests Mexican drug cartels are financing the maritime smuggling operations off local waters. And the recent string of local panga sightings is proof that smugglers, desperate to move contraband north, are increasingly exchanging traditional land routes for risky ocean treks, federal immigration officials said.
"One thing is for sure - the cartels control the smuggling routes used to bring in people and narcotics," Arnold said. "And certainly in these pangas we've seen both drugs and people. I think that they're inextricably linked."
More proof of the growing trend was recently found just off the Newport Beach shoreline, where a trio of alleged smugglers was detained earlier this month as they approached the beach just a mile south of where a high-profile surf contest - The U.S. Open of Surfing - was under way. According to the Orange County Register, three Mexican nationals were seen throwing a package overboard and they tried to elude lifeguards and high-speed sheriff's vessels.
And a smuggling operation was intercepted Aug. 11 near Oceanside, where three Mexican nationals were arrested - and more than 700 pounds of marijuana seized - as they approached a beach at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton. The marijuana, stashed in tightly wrapped bundles, had a street value of nearly $445,000.
Since Oct. 1, local and federal authorities have seized 97 suspected smuggling vessels, leading to the apprehension of 555 people off the Los Angeles and San Diego shoreline, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Border Patrol. In the 2010 fiscal year, 110 vessels were seized and 867 people were detained, up from 49 vessels seized and 400 people detained in 2009. In 2008, there were even fewer reported incidents: just 33 seizures, leading to 230 apprehensions.
Those arrested for attempted smuggling face deportation and felony charges that can bring sentences of up to life in prison.
Although President Barack Obama announced Thursday that undocumented students would not be targeted for deportation, his administration has tightened restrictions on illegal immigration, deporting a record 400,000 immigrants living in the U.S. illegally in 2009 and 2010.
Previously, migrants captured by U.S. border security were detained, fingerprinted and then asked to voluntarily return to Mexico. But new immigration policy mandates that migrants detained trying to enter illegally be immediately deported. By illegally returning to the U.S., they face felony charges, Jimenez said.
In February, two smugglers were sentenced to five years in prison each for leading a boat packed with illegal immigrants into rough surf in San Diego last year, killing two passengers. Authorities said more than 20 people were crammed into the 26-foot boat.
For the seagoing migrants seeking to safely reach the U.S shore, their harrowing journey can start as close as Tijuana but more often begins in coastal villages farther down the Baja Peninsula, near Ensenada and Rosarito.
The vessels they use to travel north are typically small - around 20 feet - and powered by outboard motors. Stocked with large fuel canisters, the pangas can carry up to 17 passengers and typically are crewed by three people - a navigator, a captain and an assistant. Navigation is typically done from a hand-held global positioning device.
Although pangas seem to be the vehicle of choice, smugglers also have been known to use battery-powered dive scooters, personal watercraft and hollowed-out surfboards filled with marijuana. There even have been instances of federal agents discovering home-built submarines stashed with cocaine in Ecuador and Colombia, ready for the journey north into Mexico.
Federal authorities say that up to 30 percent of the cocaine eventually reaching the United States is transported in submersible "narco subs."
To patrol the Southern California coast, the Border Patrol partners with the U.S. Coast Guard and local law enforcement agencies. Anti-smuggling partnerships have also been forged with Mexican officials.
To avoid detection, maritime smugglers often travel 100 miles due west before heading north into U.S. waters. They approach land at night, their discarded vessels found abandoned on rocky stretches of coastline. The voyages, often in leaky vessels that are overcrowded, can stretch 300 miles and more than 12 hours.
"It's really gutsy to venture that far out in a boat like that with a hand-held GPS unit," Arnold said. "The water is rough, and it's a big ocean. They don't know the risks they are undertaking."
Water temperatures off the Southern California coastline can hover around 60 degrees. Migrants and smugglers also often face heavy seas and unpredictable wind changes.
In June, 15 suspected illegal immigrants were found stranded on a remote stretch of Santa Cruz Island, about 26 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, after they were abandoned by a smuggler. Their desperate 911 call prompted a land and sea search. The group was rescued, hungry and thirsty, by the Coast Guard after being stranded on the unpopulated island for three days.
For some, the price of illegal entry into the United States transcends money. The Border Patrol has received reports of at least two deaths after a smuggling vessel capsized off the Southern California coast.
Rates for illegal passage into the U.S. have risen with the tighter border security. What was once a $1,000 to $1,200 price tag for being brought illegally into the U.S. now costs $3,000 by land and up to $9,000 by sea.
"Migrant smuggling is a lucrative business to be involved with," said Jimenez, the Border Patrol agent.
Although many migrants found in seagoing vessels off the Southern California coastline are from Mexico and Central America, there have been instances of migrants coming to U.S. shores from as far away as China. Prices for those migrants can be as high as $40,000, Arnold said.
Locally, a 25-foot skiff was found May 13 abandoned near the same Palos Verdes Estates Beach where Uraguchi discovered the panga earlier this month. More than 100 gallons of fuel in five-gallon containers were found on board. And on July 1, sheriff's deputies discovered a sinking skiff with 200 pounds of marijuana aboard at Point Vicente Fishing Access, a cove near Terranea Resort.
Authorities said they are continuing to investigate the incidents, although each are believed to have been tied to smuggling operations from Mexico.
Smugglers also have recently been intercepted near Malibu and Catalina Island.
Palos Verdes Estates police Capt. Mark Velez said his department's officers have increased patrols around the Bluff Cove area and read training bulletins from federal officials on what to look for.
"Looking for cars that are out of place," Velez said. "Anything suspicious, anything out of the ordinary."
Velez said residents also should look out for anything unusual.
"If people see suspicious cars in the area, give us a call," Velez said. "If it doesn't belong or it's 2 in the morning and someone is just sitting in the car, that would be good for us to know."
The physical and mental toll migrants endure to reach U.S shores by the unforgiving sea is proof of their increased desperation, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Adam Eggers, who has responded to suspected migrant smuggling incidents near the Peninsula and on Santa Cruz Island.
"There is the knowledge that they're doing something illegal, on top of the physical stress of being at sea and getting jarred. All with a lack of food or water," said Eggers, who is stationed at Terminal Island and was among the crew to respond to the panga found earlier this month in Palos Verdes Estates. "Just sitting on the bottom of the wooden boat, that takes an immense physical toll.
"Most of the people are coming here for their chance at the American dream," Eggers added. "For their chance to get a better life."
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Voyages of desperation