The US Coast Guard in San Diego has ended its search for missing migrants after two smuggling boats capsized off California’s coast over the weekend, leaving eight people dead in what one official called “one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies” the city has seen.
The two boats overturned around 11:30 p.m. Saturday near the shore of San Diego County’s Black’s Beach. Authorities were alerted by a woman on one of the boats who called 911, according to Chief James Gartland, lifeguard chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
Responding lifeguards arrived “in rescue mode,” Gartland said. “The lifeguards, after about an hour of searching and recovering bodies, we were in recovery mode for about five hours after that.”
Lifeguards who first responded battled high tide and low visibility, Gartland said. After wading through “knee to waist deep water,” they reached a stretch of beach strewn with bodies and dotted with life jackets and fuel tanks, the fire department said in a release.
Several other agencies also responded to the area, including San Diego Police, US Customs and Border Protection and the US Coast Guard, the release said.
One boat, which had carried eight people, was able to make it ashore, while the other, carrying 15 people, had “overturned in the surf,” said Capt. James Spitler, sector commander for the US Coast Guard in San Diego.
Seven bodies were found on the beach and an eighth was later discovered by Customs and Border Protection officers, the release said. All were adults but their nationalities remain unknown, Gartland said, adding none were found wearing life jackets.
No survivors were found at the scene, Gartland said, including the Spanish-speaking woman who called 911.
It’s unclear what caused the two panga boats, a type of small motorized fishing vessel, to capsize, but Gartland pointed out conditions that night were pitch black and foggy. The vessels also overturned in a “very hazardous area” where inshore holes and rip currents could easily pull people out to sea, he said.
“This is one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California. Certainly, here in the city of San Diego,” Gartland said, offering his condolences to the victims’ families.
The victims’ remains were transported to the San Diego County Medical Examiner, according to the fire department.
Though authorities have provided few details on the boats’ passengers or the reasoning for their voyage, Spitler called the incident a “tragedy” and said human trafficking along the southern California coast has increased significantly since 2017.
“This is not necessarily people trying to find a better life,” the Coast Guard commander said, referring to boats transporting migrants. “This is part of a transnational criminal organization effort to smuggle people into the United States. These people are often labor trafficked and sex trafficked when they arrive.”
There have been a handful of other deadly incidents involving suspected smuggling boats along San Diego’s coastline in recent years, including in 2021 when one person died and at least 15 people were detained after authorities rescued them from a panga-style boat near Point Loma.
Also in 2021, at least three people died after a suspected smuggling boat carrying 32 people overturned near Point Loma. At the time, Gartland said it appeared the vessel struck a reef and broke apart.