Border Runners Turn To Pacific

Border runners turn to Pacific
As wall rises on land, illicit traffic hits sea

By Michael Martinez
Tribune correspondent
May 5, 2008

DEL MAR, Calif.–Surf's up, but Aaron Dorsey fears what he may find paddling out to sea. A body? An abandoned boat or its wreckage? Or smugglers, possibly armed?

Already, five boats belonging to smugglers of drugs or illegal immigrants have been found beached or wrecked by reefs in the past six monthsa sign that smuggling by sea is the latest route to avoid the new border fence and toughened frontier.

While waterborne journeys have been common on the Atlantic with Cuban or Haitian migrants, the Pacific passage is unusual because it's occurring year-round now, not just confined to the warm months when smugglers' bigger boats hide in plain sight amid U.S. marine traffic, federal officials say.

Equally troublesome is how smugglers are now using disposable, sometimes barely seaworthy boats, such as a 26-foot watercraft called a panga that held 17 people and was intercepted last week by a federal patrol.

The boats often have engines that fail and lack life vests. They usually motor at night, without navigational lights or registration markings, skippered by novices who sometimes strike coastal reefsand then are forced to abandon ship and their marijuana load, as happened with an 18-foot boat last month off San Diego.

The voyages sometimes end as far as 30 miles north of the border, on the shores of upscale Del Mar, known for its horse-racing track. Distant from the base of federal sea and air patrols in San Diego, the illicit crews can land and escape, close to the interstate highway leading to Los Angeles, a hub for illegal immigrants heading to Chicago and elsewhere in the country, federal officials say.

“It's midnight, it's in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it's dark and it's cold. Not only is it an arduous undertaking, it's ripe for disaster,” said Miguel Unzueta, special agent in charge for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in San Diego and Imperial Counties. So far, no deaths have been reported.

“It's hard to see a small boat in the ocean from an airplane. If you don't know if somebody is in need of rescue, you may not be searching for them,” Unzueta said.

Coastal residents such as Dorsey, a 38-year-old software businessman who lives just blocks from the beach, are stunned to see border smuggling suddenly intruding on Del Mar beach.

“Wow, I can't believe it's happening,” said Dorsey, dressed in baggy shorts as he readied to surf. “I couldn't believe the methods that they're usingthey don't really care. They're using small crafts under 20 feet and crashing them ashore.”

A handful to secure

So far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, federal authorities have seized 15 smuggling boats along the Southern California coast, compared with 10 in all of the previous fiscal year, according to ICE officials.

Such smuggling raises concerns about national security against terrorism, especially as boating's high season is about to kick in, so the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week unveiled a new Small Vessel Security Strategy that seeks to educate private boat owners on how to spot suspicious activity at sea, such as a rickety boat without a registration mark on the hull.

Patrolling the vast Pacific is daunting: The coast largely operates on a “seemingly honor-based neighborhood watch program” where 85 percent of ports and marinas are in private hands, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement about the new strategy.

While the Coast Guard and other federal agencies use aircraft and a fleet of vessels to monitor the waterfront, “it's really too much for one country to patrol and to secure,” said Coast Guard Lt. Dave Oney. Cooperation with other Pacific nations and even community-based vigilance groups in Seattle helps with security, he said.

Smuggling by sea is part of a larger picture of how smugglers are trying to thwart the additional 670 miles of fencing being constructed on the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Illegal migrants and their smugglers are now using blowtorches to cut holes in fences, digging tunnels, and even using tall ladders and bungee ropes to scale and descend the new fencing, federal officials said.

They acknowledge the battle is a cat-and-mouse game that changes course whenever the government toughens one part of the border.

Seeking weak links

“It's a balloon, and when you squeeze that balloon with enforcement actions, that activity goes off to the other direction and you have to enforce in that direction and head that off,” said Vincent Bond, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego.

“The smuggler is always looking for the weak link.”

Federal officials and immigrant-rights advocates are divided on whether the measures on land are working.

From last October to March, the Border Patrol made 347,372 apprehensions, compared with 418,173 for the same period a year ago. Ramon Rivera, assistant chief of the 16,000-agent bureau, said that's a signal that the new fence and more technology and manpower on the border are working.

“The smugglers are frustrated. They've been able to come and go with impunity and they're getting upset,” he said. “But we're winning. You can tell by our numbers.”

But Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, which advocates comprehensive Immigration reform, said the new fence is “a failure.”

“It doesn't mean that people aren't crossing,” he said. “It's strictly a political decision in Washington to show we're tough on immigrants.”


Related links

Border apprehensions down, by sea goes up

Border apprehensions down, by sea goes up Graphic

Border wall outrage in Texas Video