3 killed after overcrowded boat capsized off San Diego coast in apparent smuggling operation

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday suspended its response to an overturned vessel that broke apart in choppy waters off the coast of San Diego. A total of 32 people were accounted for after a “severely overcrowded” boat overturned Sunday morning during a suspected human smuggling incident, officials said.

“Yesterday, we were once again reminded how dangerous these ocean smuggling attempts can be and we will continue to work with our local, state and federal partners to prevent, detect and respond to cases like this to keep the waters of San Diego safe and secure,” said Captain Timothy Barelli of the Coast Guard.

Twenty-nine people survived, five of whom were hospitalized, the Coast Guard said Monday. One remains in critical condition. Three people were declared dead by the San Diego County medical examiner. The Coast Guard previously said four people had died.

A Coast Guard cutter had been searching area waters overnight.

“Every indication from our perspective was this was a smuggling vessel,” Jeff Stephenson, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said at a Sunday afternoon press conference. The suspected smuggler was in custody, he said.

Rick Romero, a lifeguard lieutenant with the city of San Diego, said there were a “wide variety of injuries,” including hypothermia. Lifeguards made seven water rescues and a cliff rescue. There was one major trauma and three CPRs at the scene. He said many people were able to walk themselves to an ambulance.

“Our goal was just to rescue everyone we can from the water and down along on the beach and get them up safely transported to the hospital as quickly as we can,” Romero said.

The lieutenant said the conditions in the ocean “were pretty rough” with 5 to 6 feet of surf. He said the 40-foot cabin cruiser “slowly disintegrated” as it hit the ocean reef, and there were several people who were sucked out to sea by rip currents.

Officials would not reveal the origin of the boat or the nationalities of those involved in the accident. There was no manifest on the vessel, making it impossible to know the total number of people on board, officials said.

Stephenson said the boat wasn’t an open-bow panga boat that is often used for smuggling people illegally into the U.S. from Mexico. The captain was likely trying to blend into commercial maritime traffic in the area, he said.

“The smugglers don’t care about the people they are exploiting,” Stephenson said. “All they care about is profit. To them, all these people are are just commodities.”

A total of 96 personnel responded to the incident, officials said, including personnel from the Coast Guard, U.S. Border Protection, U.S. Park Rangers and U.S. Department of the Interior. 

Officials said the emergency was located near the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, some 130 miles south of Los Angeles. A federal investigation is underway. Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported, according to The Associated Press.

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