The U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search on Sunday afternoon for several migrants who are still believed to be missing after two smuggling boats capsized off the coast of southern California.
A woman called 911 shortly before midnight on Saturday and said one of the vessels carrying 15 migrants had just capsized in dangerous conditions near Black’s Beach, about 15 miles north of San Diego. She said that eight people were in her vessel, which had not yet capsized.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard responded to the scene and pulled the bodies of eight people from the water. Both boats were overturned near the shoreline when rescuers arrived.
Capt. James Spitler, Coast Guard Sector San Diego commander, laid the blame on “transnational criminal organizations” for the 771% increase in human trafficking that authorities have seen in the southern California coastal region since 2017.
“Every time that they get into a panga to come northbound, their lives are at risk,” Spitler said at a press conference. “The real number of deaths in the California coastal region is unknown. Often these boats are overloaded, the maintenance is poor.”
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James Gartland, chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s lifeguards, said that it’s unclear how many migrants made it to shore, noting that rescue crews did not encounter any survivors when they arrived at the scene.
The swell was not unusually large at just three feet, but the area where the boats capsized can be deceptively hazardous, Gartland said.
“It has a series of sandbars and in-shore rip currents, so you can think that you can land in some sand or get to waist-high, knee-high water, and think that you’re able to be safe to exit the water, but there’s long, in-shore holes,” Gartland said at a press conference.
“So If you step into those holes, those rip currents will pull you along the shore and back out to sea.”
The Coast Guard suspended its search at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. A spokesperson for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department said that lifeguards are doing routine patrols, but not longer actively searching.
All of the victims are believed to be adults, but their nationalities are unclear.