Authorities detain 17 men in panga off the coast of San Diego

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Authorities Thursday said they stopped 17 people in a boat off the coast of San Diego who were illegally attempting to enter the U.S. earlier this week. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

SAN DIEGO – Authorities Thursday said they stopped 17 people in a boat off the coast of San Diego who were illegally attempting to enter the U.S. earlier this week.

The 24-foot vessel traveling without navigational lights was spotted Tuesday by an aircraft patrolling the coast, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Officials tracked the boat as it traveled north from Mexican waters toward the U.S., deploying its own vessel in an attempt to intercept it.

According to the agency, officials directed the panga to stop after catching up to it at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. But when the operator didn’t stop, officers gave chase, firing off two warning rounds after which the panga operator stopped west of Sunset Cliffs.

“It took two warning shots before the vessel would stop,” said Tim Sutherland, director of the San Diego Air and Marine Branch for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations, in a statement. “Unfortunately, we have smuggling organizations who will risk the lives of everyone on board, which is why our agents train on our protocols to safely stop smuggling attempts like this.”

On board were 17 men — 16 Mexican nationals and one Cuban national — who were aged between 19 and 40 years. All except the operator were processed to return to their home countries, the agency said.

The operator now is facing federal criminal charges, according to USBP.

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