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Border Patrol Launches New Marine Unit Amidst Rise In Maritime Smuggling

A boat that's now part of the Border Patrol's marine unit, created in respons...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: A boat that's now part of the Border Patrol's marine unit, created in response to an increase in smuggling incidents in San Diego, Calif. June 22nd, 2021

The amount of maritime smuggling events intercepted by the U.S. government along the San Diego coast increased by 93% between 2019 and 2020.

So far in 2021, 1,232 people have been apprehended while being smuggled at sea.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler

“Amid this backdrop of consistent human smuggling attempts, along the California coastline, San Diego Border Patrol is establishing this marine unit,” said Aaron Heitke, Chief Border Patrol Agent for the San Diego sector. “Border Security is national security, and the United States Border Patrol is using our forward-deployed Border Patrol assets, targeted operations, and information-sharing to deter and disrupt human smuggling activities by transnational criminal organizations.”

In May, three people died after a boat capsized off of Point Loma.

RELATED: Panga Boat Carrying 23 People Discovered Off Coast Of Point Loma

At least one of the victims of that accident had tried to enter the United States several times before, but was turned around by Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that rapidly expels people crossing the border.

Heitke told KPBS the rise in maritime human smuggling had nothing to do with Title 42, even as the amount of smuggling events began to rise just as the policy went into effect.

“We haven’t seen any impact of Title 42 on the increase in maritime activity. The individuals coming through during maritime activity are trying to get away. They’re not claiming asylum or credible fear, so we don’t see a connection,” he said.

RELATED: Border Patrol Announces Increased Presence This Weekend To Counter Smuggling

Heitke pointed to increased enforcement and infrastructure at the land border as the reason people have increasingly tried to get into the country through the sea.

Agent Kurtis Kantura showed off the new boats, which will supplement the work of the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection’s marine unit.

“We’re by no means the EMS or anything like that, but we’re a first-response platform,” Kantura said. “We do have first aid that we can render, we do have emergency extraction. We can get people out of the water to safety, and into EMS where they can be further evaluated.”

The boats were originally designed to patrol the Rio Grande, so Border Patrol said they won’t be used in the open seas, where most of these maritime smuggling events take place. Instead they’ll be patrolling the bays and the harbors around San Diego.

Reported by Max Rivlin-Nadler , Video by Matthew Bowler

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