1 person dies in boat capsizing off La Jolla, latest in a wave of migrant smuggling

Lifeguards rescued 10 people from a suspected smuggling boat; the vessel eventually capsized.
San Diego, CA - May 20: On Thursday, May 20, 2021 in San Diego, CA., investigators near ChildrenÕs Pool look over a small boat on the beach. Border Patrol says 15 people have been taken into custody after the boat came into shore near ChildrenÕs Pool. At least one person died and several people were rescued from the water after a suspected smuggling boat capsized off the La Jolla shore early Thursday, authorities said. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

15 people were taken into custody with 10 rescued by lifeguards; boat eventually came into shore near Children’s Pool


One person died and 10 others were rescued from a suspected smuggling boat that eventually capsized off the La Jolla shore early Thursday, authorities said.

The incident is one of at least four at-sea human smuggling attempts in San Diego in just the past week, and comes nearly three weeks after three undocumented immigrants drowned when their boat crashed near Cabrillo National Monument.

In predawn darkness, lifeguards used boats and at least one rescue board to pluck people from the water near Marine Street Thursday. The panga then continued north and eventually came into shore about a mile away, where it capsized in the surf line near the Children’s Pool. A submerged victim was found nearby and did not survive.

In all, 15 people were taken into custody from the small panga-style vessel, said Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Jeffrey Stephenson.


Agents first spotted the boat off the coast near Point Loma around 5:10 a.m. and tracked it to La Jolla, hoping to see where it was going to make landfall.

Around 5:20 a.m., an agent saw several people in the water who appeared to be in distress and called San Diego lifeguards, said Border Patrol Agent Jacob MacIsaac.

Video shot by OnScene TV showed a Coast Guard helicopter circling over the water as lifeguards on a rescue boat and a rescue board worked to pull people out of the ocean.

“When our lifeguards got at the scene, there (were) people in the water — we did not have visuals of anyone on the actual vessel,” Lifeguard Capt. Maureen Hodges told reporters at a news conference. “Most of the victims did have life jackets either on or were holding onto them.”

Suspected human smuggling attempts by sea off San Diego

Those who were rescued were transported by boat to lifeguard headquarters, where they were met by ambulances. After being evaluated, eight patients were transported to hospitals to be treated.

“The conditions out there today were rough,” Hodges said. “We have 4- to 6-foot surf and some heavy currents.”

The panga continued up the coast after the group of passengers jumped off. A short time later, it came into shore at Wipeout Beach near Coast Boulevard, about a mile away.

That’s where a person was found submerged in the water, said Lifeguard Lt. Ric Stell.

As the boat neared shore, it capsized in the surf line, Stell said.

“Usually when boats go into the surf they flip,” he said. The boat righted itself and ended up in an upright position in the sand.

The person in the water was brought to shore and CPR was performed, but he or she did not survive, San Diego Fire-Rescue spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz said.

Some people were able to make it to shore on their own after jumping off the boat. OnScene TV showed at least two men on the beach being assisted by Border Patrol agents.

Lifeguards rescued several people who went into the water off La Jolla
Lifeguards rescued several people who went into the water off La Jolla after a suspected smuggling boat capsized early Thursday.
(OnScene TV )

Authorities did not release any additional information about the deceased victim or the other passengers, including ages and nationalities.

Michael Pallamary said he was awakened by the thumping of helicopters overhead and walked outside to see the water rescue unfold across the street.

“There were lots of flashing blue lights. I could see people in the water,” said Pallamary, who owns a La Jolla-based land surveying firm. He walked a little farther north and saw Border Patrol agents rounding up more people. He didn’t learn until later that a person died.

“It was ultimately a sad situation,” he said.

People seeking to cross the border are increasingly turning to the sea as enforcement is heightened at land borders.

The La Jolla coastline has become a common area for smugglers to land boats. However, three previous attempts in the past week have targeted the shores near Sunset Cliffs, according to criminal complaints filed in San Diego federal court and interviews with authorities.

The first occurred in the early morning hours last Friday.

A Border Patrol agent watching the waters with an infrared camera spotted a panga-style boat about 2:15 a.m. approaching the coastline below Sunset Cliffs, according to court records.

A deadly wreck of a boat off Point Loma shows how decades of heightened border enforcement and recent pandemic policies have driven migrants to riskier crossings

The boat landed about 30 minutes later, in an area known as Garbage Beach, and the agent watched as a group of people made their way up a staircase and into the side yard of a nearby home.

Agents surrounded the home and found 14 people hiding the back yard. All were determined to be Mexican nationals.

Another boat laden with undocumented immigrants landed in the same area a day later.

The panga was spotted about 5:15 a.m. Saturday, again by an agent monitoring the coastline.

A group scrambled up the cliffs, and one person broke away and walked toward a vehicle parked nearby. The man approached the driver and asked in Spanish if he was there to pick them up.

It turned out that the driver was a Border Patrol agent — wearing a ballistic vest with his badge and the agency’s insignia — who had responded to the radio call. The agent identified himself as such and arrested the man.

While handcuffed, the man tried to run away but was quickly caught, according to the complaint.

Sixteen others, all Mexican citizens, were found in the surrounding area and detained on suspicion of being in the country illegally.

Early Monday, Coast Guard crews were sent out to intercept another panga coming in near the same spot about 2:50 a.m.

The boat’s driver ignored commands to stop. As the boat neared the surf line at Osprey Reef, its engine died and it began to drift toward rocks. San Diego lifeguards, aided by the Coast Guard, responded in a small boat and hooked the panga with a rope to pull it away from the cliffs.

Twenty Mexicans and three Guatemalans were detained unharmed.

“The real danger here definitely is to the migrants that are on these vessels,” Agent MacIsaac said. “These are basically open hulled fishing vessels, they are loading them, overloading them with occupants, with gas cans.”

The crash on May 2 on the rocks near Cabrillo differed from the other recent incidents in that the boat was not a panga but a larger trawler-like vessel. It was overloaded with 33 people when it ran aground and broke apart, throwing people into the sea. Three migrants, all Mexican, drowned. The suspected operator of the boat, a U.S. citizen, is facing federal criminal charges.

Border Patrol agents urge people not to put their lives into the hands of smugglers.

The boats used by smugglers often are “grossly overladen,” lack safety devices and sometimes are found off the coast “dead in the water,” MacIsaac said.

At least 116 people have died so far this year during attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border or as they journeyed north in the interior of Mexico, according to data tracked by the International Organization for Migration.


9:59 a.m. May 20, 2021: This story was updated with additional information.