A final count Monday revealed that the U.S. Border Patrol's weekend sweep for illegal immigrants netted 951 people, including four suspected of trying to smuggle aliens into the country.
Although records are sketchy, some officials said they believed that the weekend's sweep, in which agents blockaded northbound Interstate 5 for nearly five hours, nabbed more illegal aliens than had ever previously been arrested in a single operation.
From 5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 67 agents stopped cars and fanned out from the hills of the Camp Pendleton Marine base to the beaches of San Onofre State Park. A helicopter with searchlight assisted officers who chased those trying to get around the blockade.
The result: 947 people suspected of being illegal aliens, including children, were arrested. Four others were booked on suspicion of smuggling aliens into the country, said Agent Bill Beaumet, a spokesman for the checkpoint.
Thirty illegal aliens were found stacked in the back of one van alone, Beaumet said.
"The thing that this illustrates is the volume of illegal alien traffic that we are dealing with down here," said Ted Swofford, a supervising agent of the U.S. Border Patrol. He said there have been 40% to 50% more arrests this year than last.
Beaumet agreed, adding that Saturday's operation was the first of its kind since 1987 and was timed for maximum effectiveness.
"We had become aware of an increasing number of illegal aliens in the northern part of San Diego County," Beaumet said. "And weekends traditionally have always been high in terms of numbers of apprehensions. So it was as good of a time as any to do something like this."
While most of those arrested were from Mexico, 10 came from other countries, including two from India, one from Egypt and one from Australia.
"That's not unusual," Beaumet said. "We apprehend aliens here from all over the world. Last year, we arrested people from 36 or 37 different countries."
The vast majority of the Mexican nationals have already been returned to Mexico, but the other people arrested in Saturday's sweep were sent to a detention facility in San Ysidro. They will face deportation proceedings by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The four suspected of smuggling were taken to a federal jail in San Diego.
Although most of Saturday's arrests took place on the highway, many were made in the brushy hills of Camp Pendleton east of the freeway and on the beaches of the state park to the west, Beaumet said.
"The aliens were spread out everywhere," he said. "Smugglers will often drop them off south of the checkpoint and they try to come north on foot."
Officials could not immediately determine whether Saturday's arrests had broken records for a single operation. Sweeps are not unusual for the INS, and it is not uncommon for them to result in several hundred arrests, officials said.
"In the five years I have been here, we have had several operations in excess of 900 aliens," Beaumet said, adding, however, that he could not discover any that had topped Saturday's total.
The San Onofre Checkpoint, located five miles south of San Clemente and inside San Diego County, is the nation's busiest in terms of arrests of illegal aliens, according to the INS. In 1988, agents there captured 54,678 illegal immigrants.
While the checkpoint at San Onofre has been in existence only since the mid-1970s, there has been a checkpoint on the main highway between Los Angeles and San Diego since 1924, Beaumet said.
"It dates back to the old Prohibition days," Beaumet said.