Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are investigating a small boat that capsized at Aliso Beach early Wednesday morning that was apparently dropping off at least a dozen people in a suspected human smuggling operation, Laguna Beach Police Lt. Jason Kravetz said.
It is the second incident of suspected human smuggling off of South Laguna within the past two months, said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
In Wednesday’s and a Nov. 11 incident, small boats were abandoned at Aliso Beach. In both instances, evidence pointed to the boats’ originating in Mexico, Kravetz said.
At least 12 people are believed to have come ashore Wednesday, leaving behind life vests and wet clothing, Kravetz said. The people were apparently met at the shore by someone who led them under a bridge to an inland parking lot, and then up into a residential area where they were tracked to a location on Monterey Street. There they apparently entered a van from the side and back, Kravetz said.
The skiff was reported washing ashore at 2:40 a.m.
“When officers arrived, they found an open top 18-foot boat with outboard motors capsized in the surf,” Kravetz said. “Numerous lifejackets and partially filled 10-gallon fuel containers littered the shoreline. The lifejackets bore labels showing a Mexican origin. A waterlogged handheld GPS device was also found.”
Kravetz said the investigation indicated that at least 12 people came ashore at 2 a.m. and went to the Aliso East parking lot.
“They proceeded up a path to Monterey Street and walked through a yard belonging to a residence in the 31000 block of Monterey,” Kravetz said. “The wet footsteps led to the street, where they abruptly ended. The footsteps indicate that the people entered a vehicle from the side and from the back. The vehicle is presumably a van.”
Laguna Beach police immediately notified neighboring police agencies, and Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol checked surrounding beaches for evidence of more vessels, but none were found, Kravetz said.
Because an estimated 20 to 30 gallons of fuel were spilled into the ocean from the overturned boat, as well as several additional fuel containers in the water, Laguna Beach Marine Safety and Water Quality also responded to clean up the sand, he said.
ICE and Border Patrol agents then took over the investigation and took custody of the boat and other evidence.
Kice said that ocean-borne human smuggling is on the rise around Southern California.
“We have seen a significant increase in human maritime smuggling in the San Diego area, but it’s highly unusual to see it as far north as Laguna Beach,” Kice said. The ocean smuggling has increased as enforcement of land borders has been stepped up, she added. In response, the agency has set up a special Maritime Smuggling Task Force with various agencies involved.
Kice added that the illegal immigrants’ nationality cannot be determined from the evidence that has been recovered.
“These are multilayered, well-organized and sophisticated operations,” she said. “They involve drop houses and some of the people may end up being held hostage as the smugglers try to extort more money from their families.”
Kice said her agency would like to hear from Laguna Beach residents who may have information about the incident. The ICE tip line is (866) 347-2423.