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

Pangas, the fishing boats typically used by smugglers ferrying people up the coast from Baja California
Pangas, the fishing boats typically used by smugglers ferrying people up the coast from Baja California
Photo by lowjumpingfrog/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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:

“I haven’t seen them, but everyone knows about it,” said the owner of a small restaurant on the beach, who like several others interviewed for this story did not wish to be identified for fear of their safety. “But what can we say? They come at night. We don’t see them.”

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in San Diego, the smuggling boats continue to take off from Popotla, as well as from other launch spots farther south, closer to Ensenada. One difference is that last year, most of the smuggling boats were still landing near San Diego, with a few landing in Orange County. Since then, as evidenced by the stranded migrants on Santa Cruz Island, some of these trips have been getting longer.

It's a dangerous journey. The boats lack adequate safety equipment, are overcrowded, and travel farther out to sea with heavier loads than what they're built to do. Some have capsized, like one did this week off Orange County. A capsizing last year near Torrey Pines State Beach near San Diego resulted in the deaths of two migrants.

For this, people pay as much as $5,000, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities. The idea is to evade tightened security on land, making the trip much costlier than a land trek. In spite of the cost, smuggling by sea has become increasingly popular, with U.S. officials logging a growing number arrests since they began noticing the trend about four years ago near the border.

Today the Los Angeles Times reported that last year there were 867 undocumented immigrants and smugglers arrested at sea or along the California coast, more than twice as many as in 2009. Most are still caught off San Diego and Orange counties, but both human and drug smuggling attempts have been discovered as far north as Malibu and the Channel Islands.

The 15 migrants who were left on Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles off Ventura, had gone days without food. They were rescued after one of them called 911 from a cell phone last Friday.