The discovery of a panga-style boat that may have been used to smuggle immigrants onto an Orange County beach triggered the temporary lockdown of an elementary school as authorities searched the area for the vessel’s occupants Tuesday morning.
The boat came ashore on Moro Beach, in Crystal Cove State Park, about 6:25 a.m. with people on board, said California State Parks spokesman Jorge Moreno.
El Morro Elementary School in Laguna Beach was placed on lockdown for roughly two hours, starting at 7:30 a.m., as Laguna Beach and Newport Beach police, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, combed the area around Crystal Cove. At least four people were located by 7:40 a.m., according to authorities.
An Orange County Sheriff’s Department helicopter crew and a Laguna Beach police drone equipped with infrared technology helped with the search.
It remains unclear where the vessel came from.
During the search, Laguna Beach Unified School District officials tweeted that El Morro Elementary “is safe, but currently on lockdown.” The lockdown was lifted by 9:35 a.m.
This is the second time this month that a panga-style boat was found beached 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. Authorities believed about 12 people entered the country illegally on that boat.
Pangas are “Mexican-style fishing boats,” often powered by outboard motors, used to smuggle drugs and people into the country, said U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Theron Francisco. They tend to be about 20 feet in length, though the size and the number of people or items on board vary, he said.
In the 2017 fiscal year there were 129 “maritime events” along the California coast, most of which involved boats like these, though people also use jet skis and family boats to blend in more, Francisco said. From October 2017 to May of this year there were 63 such events, he said.
In fiscal year 2017, U.S. 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 U.S., he said. Francisco did not know how many were seeking asylum in the country.
“Most of the people being smuggled through the maritime scene are not the ones claiming asylum or refugee status,” Francisco said.
Fry writes for Times Community News.