Laguna Beach police and U.S. Border Patrol officers are continuing to search for five men from Mexico who are believed to have been aboard a panga-style boat that went ashore at Crystal Cove State Park on Tuesday morning, authorities said.
Four men who authorities said also were onboard were located and taken to a nearby Border Patrol facility for processing, authorities said.
Newport Beach police, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department helicopter crew and a Laguna Beach police drone equipped with infrared technology are helping with the search.
Border Patrol officers responded to a report at about 6:30 a.m. that a boat with a group of men onboard had landed at Moro Beach about five minutes earlier, according to California State Parks and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.
In response, Laguna Beach Unified School District officials placed El Morro Elementary School on lockdown for about two hours.
Panga boats are fishing vessels that tend to be about 20 feet long and often are powered by outboard motors. They sometimes are used to smuggle drugs and people into the country, said Border Patrol spokesman Theron Francisco. The number and size of people or items onboard may vary, he said.
This is the second time this month that a panga-style boat has been found onshore in the Crystal Cove State Park area.
An abandoned boat that may have been used for human smuggling was discovered June 11 on the beach near Reef Point. No one was aboard when authorities arrived.
Crystal Cove has been a landing area for panga boats for several years, though the reason is not clear.
“Maritime smuggling is extremely dangerous,” Eduardo Olmos, a spokesman for the Border Patrol, said in a statement Tuesday. “Smuggling organizations will knowingly put illegal aliens in dangerous situations for their monetary gain. If you see something, say something by calling (619) 498-9900.”
In the 2017 fiscal year, there were 129 “maritime events” along the California coast, most of which involved panga boats, though people also use personal watercraft and family boats to blend in more, Francisco said. From October to May, there were 63 such events, he said.
In fiscal 2017, the Border Patrol apprehended 347 people trying to enter the country along the California coast by water, Francisco said.
People apprehended may be deported to their country of origin or face additional charges in the United States, he said. Francisco said he didn’t know how many were seeking asylum in the U.S.
“Most of the people being smuggled through the maritime scene are not the ones claiming asylum or refugee status,” he said.
Fry is a Daily Pilot staff writer. Kohli writes for the Los Angeles Times.