Coast Guard suspends response to boat that capsized off San Diego in suspected smuggling operation


The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday suspended its response to a boat suspected of being used in a human smuggling operation that capsized and broke apart in powerful surf along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen others.

The search lasted through the night led by the Coast Guard Cutter Haddock and its crew. Officials on Sunday originally said four people aboard the boat had died, but the Coast Guard on Monday changed the number to three, citing information from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office, according to Reuters. A total of 29 survived, according to authorities

Wreckage and debris from a capsized boat washes ashore at Cabrillo National Monument near where a boat capsized just off the San Diego coast Sunday, May 2, 2021, in San Diego.

Wreckage and debris from a capsized boat washes ashore at Cabrillo National Monument near where a boat capsized just off the San Diego coast Sunday, May 2, 2021, in San Diego.
(AP)

Lifeguards, the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies responded Sunday following reports of an overturned vessel in the waves near the rugged peninsula of Point Loma, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

“There are people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out the rip current there,” San Diego Lifeguard Services Lt. Rick Romero said.

People were pulled from the water and others made it to shore on their own.

“Once we arrived on scene, the boat had basically been broken apart,” Romero said. “Conditions were pretty rough: 5 to 6 feet of surf, windy, cold.”

Items from a boat sit on the shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument near where it capsized just off the San Diego coast Sunday, May 2, 2021, in San Diego. 

Items from a boat sit on the shoreline at Cabrillo National Monument near where it capsized just off the San Diego coast Sunday, May 2, 2021, in San Diego. 
(AP)

Romero said there were “a wide variety of injuries,” including hypothermia. Most of the victims were able to walk themselves to ambulances, he said.

Officials said the group was overcrowded on a 40-foot cabin cruiser that is larger than the typical open-top wooden panga-style boats often used by smugglers to bring people illegally into the U.S. from Mexico.

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Under a pandemic-related order in effect since March 2020, migrants from Mexico and people from Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras picked up at the border are immediately expelled to Mexico without an opportunity to seek asylum.

Border Patrol agents went to hospitals to interview survivors of the capsizing, including the boat’s captain, who Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol, described as a “suspected smuggler.” Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flies over boats searching the area where a boat capsized just off the San Diego coast.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flies over boats searching the area where a boat capsized just off the San Diego coast.
(AP)

The incident came after border officials last week intercepted a panga-type vessel traveling without navigation lights 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board. The crew took all 15 men and six women into custody.

Agents determined all were Mexican citizens with no legal status to enter the U.S., according to a statement released by Customs and Border Protection. Two of the people on the boat, the suspected smugglers, will face charges, it said.

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Border Patrol on Friday said law enforcement officials would be ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego this past weekend.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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