SAN DIEGO — Federal authorities shared details on deadly recent smuggling operations Wednesday and made a “collective plea” to people considering coming into the country illegally: “Don’t trust human smugglers.”
The briefing, held in downtown San Diego, brought together officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Customs and Border Protection, San Diego lifeguards and others directly involved in rescuing imperiled migrants or charging the people who bring them into the country.
It came in the wake of several high-profile smuggling incidents in the San Diego area, including the boat that was carrying nearly three dozen people when it crashed into rocks off the coast of Point Loma in May, killing three passengers.
Officials said 25 people have died trying to come into the U.S. through San Diego and Imperial counties between October and April, compared to 29 in all of the 2020 fiscal year.
“We are appealing to every person who is considering a desperate, perilous journey into the United States, whether in a boat, on foot, or crammed in the trunk of a car,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman.
“Don’t do it. Do not put your life in the hands of smugglers. These people do not care about you. They will jam way too many people on a boat or in a car, just to make more money. They will direct you to hike in remote areas in dangerous weather conditions without adequate food, water or clothes. Smugglers care nothing for their customers. They care only about maximum profit.”
Within a couple weeks of the deadly Point Loma boat crash in May, 23 people were taken into custody from another crowded vessel that was stopped by Border Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard near Sunset Cliffs. Days later, one person died and 10 others were pulled from rough surf when yet another smuggling boat ran into trouble near La Jolla.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently,” Chief Border Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said last month. “All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been dedicating extra resources to San Diego’s coastline in recent months in an attempt to stymie the crossings.
In Wednesday’s briefing, officials listed a number of people who have recently been charged or convicted with human smuggling and other offenses:
- Antonio Hurtado, the alleged captain in the deadly incident off Point Loma on May 2
- Victor Alfonso Soto Aguilar and Jose Ramon Geraldo Romero for the deadly incident near La Jolla on May 20
- In January, Leobardo Soto-Toledo, who pleaded guilty to immigration crimes involving a group of 14 migrants entering the U.S. through an underground drainage pipe during heavy rains, resulting in a drowning death and another hospitalization
- In April, two brothers from Chihuahua, Mexico, who were sentenced to prison for smuggling three sisters across treacherous terrain along the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in all three of their deaths
- In March, Neil Edwin Valera, a U.S. citizen who lived in Tijuana, who was sentenced to five years in prison for the deaths of three Chinese migrants found in the trunk of his BMW
- Also in March, Jose Cruz Noguez of Mexicali, Mexico, who was charged in the crash of an overloaded vehicle that led to the deaths of 13 migrants near Holtville, California
Watch the full opening remarks from Wednesday’s briefing in the video player above.