How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Human smuggling by sea: A dangerous trend grows deadlier

UPDATED: Of the two deaths, one was related to a boat smuggling attempt, the other to an attempt to swim north around the border fence. It was originally reported that both were related to boat incidents.

Three months ago, the discovery of 15 migrants left stranded for days on remote Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles off Ventura, made national headlines. Now the trend of smuggling humans up the California coast has taken a darker turn, with two suspected migrants reported dead today - in two separate incidents.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Border Patrol reported that one of the people who died was found Tuesday night in Imperial Beach, not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. The second was a man found lying face down in a boat that washed ashore early this morning in Pacific Beach, a popular San Diego tourist beach. Several were injured in that incident; of the 15 people packing the boat, 11 needed emergency medical care.


A long, costly and dangerous trip for migrants smuggled by sea

Photo by lowjumpingfrog/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pangas, the fishing boats typically used by smugglers ferrying people up the coast from Baja California

The trend of undocumented immigrants being smuggled by sea up the California coast isn't entirely new, but the recent discovery of 15 people stranded on rugged Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Ventura County has brought the story farther north.

Where do these smuggling boats come from, and how do these operations work? Last year, before coming to work for KPCC, I went to a small Baja California fishing village north of Ensenada called Popotla to report on the maritime smuggling traffic coming out of there. It's a down-on-its-luck tourist town just south of Baja Studios, the oceanfront filming location where many of the scenes from “Titanic” were shot.

More recently, Popotla has become a preferred launching point for human smugglers ferrying people into Southern California. Human smugglers bring their charges down to the beach at night, loading them into small fishing vessels known as pangas. Popotla locals I spoke with knew about it, but looked the other way. Here's what one of them told me: