In the predawn hours of a May morning last year, a dozen migrants desperately tried to keep their heads above water about 80 yards from Marine Street beach in La Jolla.
They had just jumped into the open ocean from a panga boat, an open hull fishing vessel, after the two smugglers leading the journey told them to remove their life jackets and swim to shore.
Two migrants stayed aboard and tossed life jackets to others as they yelled for help. One person climbed back in.
Then, a lifeless body appeared in the water.
Those are the details laid out in court documents for a federal district case that convicted two Mexican nationals of human smuggling resulting in death.
Rogelio Perez Gutierrez, a 42-year-old Mexican national, was one of 14 migrants who boarded the overcrowded panga boat with little food, water or safety measures in May 2021 in an attempt to enter the U.S. without detection. Both smugglers and the other passengers survived, save for Perez Gutierrez.
Maritime smuggling attempts across the U.S.-Mexico border – of both people and contraband – have shot up over the past four years.
From fiscal year 2019 to 2022, smuggling or illegal entry attempts by sea have more than tripled, according to data from the Southern California Regional Coordinating Mechanism, a coalition of local and federal agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection.
Smuggling or illegal entry attempts by sea, referred to as maritime events by ReCom, rose the sharpest –– more than 70% –– between fiscal year 2021 and 2022, which ended September 30. More than 660 maritime events and five deaths were reported that year.
“Every death is something that we should lament and look at policy and look at why it's happening,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s US/Mexico Border Program.
The 2022 fiscal year also saw record breaking migrant encounters on land, instances where immigration authorities apprehend or turn away migrants attempting to enter the U.S. either through or between ports of entry.
Some experts and advocates attribute the increase in migrant arrivals to a pandemic-era health policy known as Title 42. That policy, first used by former President Donald Trump’s administration in March 2020, essentially closed off the U.S. asylum system to migrants who under normally have the right to ask for protection at the U.S. border.
As a result, experts say, thousands of migrants with hopes of seeking protection and opportunities in the U.S. have been forced to wait in dangerous northern Mexican cities including Tijuana.
Between January 2021 and March 2022, Human Rights First, an organization promoting human rights in the U.S., has documented nearly 10,000 reports of “kidnapping, torture, rape, and other violent attacks” among migrants stuck or sent back to Mexico due to Title 42.
Those conditions have made migrants even more desperate, said Hollie Webb, a supervising attorney with Al Otro Lado, a binational immigrant rights law firm.
“Nobody wakes up and just wants to cross in the most dangerous way possible, but they're put into a position where they don't feel like they have a choice to save their lives,” Webb said, adding later, “Policies like Title 42, they kill people.”
Crossing by sea profitable for smugglers, risky for migrants
Deaths like Perez Gutierrez’s are not uncommon along the San Diego coastline. He was one of five known deaths in 2021 resulting from an attempted undocumented entry by sea and one of 17 since 2019. Reports of migrant drownings, capsized or abandoned panga boats and failed smuggling attempts are frequent in local media.
But despite the risk, smuggling operations from Mexico to the U.S. remain highly profitable. The 14 migrants involved in the May 2021 crossing attempt each paid smugglers between $12,000 and $15,000.
The going rate for human smuggling has since risen further, and now sits around $20,000 according to Reif Smith, deputy director with CBP marine operations team in San Diego. Smuggling attempts by sea don’t show any sign of slowing, which means more deaths are likely, said Evan Wagley, supervisory marine interdiction agent said.
Air and Marine Operations is a team of 40 agents locally that uses high-speed boats and aircraft to detect and intervene in smuggling and crossing attempts along the coast of San Diego County –– more than 70 miles of coastline.
In the past few years, the San Diego marine operations team has noticed “almost exponential growth in the amount of smuggling traffic,” Wagley said.
Almost every day, Wagley said, his team makes contact with some form of smuggling attempt, but the methods vary. Migrants have attempted to swim across the border or ride jet skis or pleasure boats.
“If you can dream it up, they'll probably try to use it,” Wagley said.
CBP discourages migrants from attempting to cross into the U.S. by sea, calling the attempts “.inherently dangerous.” Many smuggling vessels are ill-equipped with safety gear and protections against the elements and overcrowded with passengers.
Yet for many people weighing the dangers of crossing by sea, the risk they face waiting in Tijuana or their home countries is greater, Webb, the immigration attorney said.
“The further that we cut off access to the asylum system, the more events like this we're going to see,” Webb said.
Smugglers can also mislead migrants about the danger of crossing by sea. In the May 2021 attempt in which Perez Gutierrez died, the smugglers told passengers they would be jumping into shallow waters, according to court documents.
In that case, smugglers overloaded the panga boat with passengers to the point that the boat stalled in the middle of the ocean. Passengers spent the night without adequate food and water and smugglers had to repair the boat on an island offshore, according to court documents.
Rios, with the American Friends Service Committee, said especially for Mexican nationals, who are more likely to be expelled from the U.S. under Title 42, the decision to cross by sea comes after trying to cross before and being turned away by immigration officials.
He pointed to the story of a migrant mother who, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune,made multiple crossing attempts before her final in which she drowned after the boat she was on crashed near Point Loma.