2 dead in possible immigrant smuggling racket, border officials say

A file photo of the San Diego coastline.
A file photo of the San Diego coastline.
David McNew/Getty Images

U.S. Border Patrol officials said Wednesday they recovered two bodies from separate incidents that that involve boats carrying suspected illegal immigrants off the coast of San Diego.

The first body was found Tuesday night when a boat was discovered in Imperial Beach, just south of San Diego. Border Patrol spokesman Rodolfo Zuniga said he had no further details on the death.

Hours later, authorities found a second body, a man, lying face down in a skiff that had been packed with 15 suspected illegal immigrants. Border agents said they saw the dinghy during a routine patrol. The boat had no lights, and crashed through the surf to make a hard landing at San Diego's Pacific Beach early Wednesday, Damon Foreman, the commander of the Coastal Border Enforcement Team, told NBC San Diego.

After finding a dead body in the boat, agents followed tracks in the sand to the 14 who had survived the voyage.

Eleven people were treated at hospitals for injuries ranging from bruises to broken ankles, Capt. Milo Vaughs of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said. The other three were taken into custody.

"When you come through the surf in a ... boat, anything can happen. They jump out of it, it hits them in the surf," Vaughs said.

The small fishing boat apparently came from Mexico and no drugs were found aboard, authorities said.

Mexican smugglers have been increasingly turning to the sea to skirt border security and get illegal immigrants into California. In July, 15 suspected illegal immigrants stranded by a smuggler for three days were found on Santa Cruz Island, northwest of Los Angeles.

In June, 10 suspected illegal immigrants were detained in the Malibu area near Los Angeles. Two suffered broken bones while coming ashore.

Earlier this year, 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. More than 20 people were crammed into the 26-foot boat.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the number of undocumented immigrants and smugglers arrested at sea or along the California coast is on the rise. In 2010, 867 violators were apprehended, more than twice as many as 2009.

KPCC's Lily Mihalik contributed to this report.