Boat in Smuggling Operation Capsizes Near California Coast, Some Passengers Unaccounted For

A small boat, known as a panga, used in smuggling operations at the southern border capsized Thursday morning off the coast of Encinitas, California, with eight people hospitalized and the remaining passengers unaccounted for.

The panga was observed by the U.S. Border Patrol around 5 a.m. heading to the shoreline about 40 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, near Moonlight Beach, according to the website Border Report. When officials arrived, the boat had capsized.

It is unclear how many people were originally on the panga, but Encinitas Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Mickelson told Border Report, "Eighteen life vests were located on the beach, which indicates to us there were up to 18 passengers inside the panga."

He said no other passengers had been located as of Thursday evening.

The eight people that were rescued were all suffering symptoms of hypothermia after spending time in the water, Border Patrol spokesman Jeff Stephenson told the Los Angeles Times.

The cause of the boat's capsizing was unruly waves, Mickelson said. "They try to get as close to the beach as possible. With the elevated surf, it probably caused the panga to overturn in the surf line."

According to Border Report, a search and rescue operation by the Coast Guard for the missing passengers was in effect, but by mid-morning it was called off.

A spokesperson from the San Diego Sector (SDC) of the Border Patrol told Newsweek, "A search for more individuals continues. The investigation is ongoing, and initial information about this event may be updated."

Failed smuggling operations along the San Diego coastline have become increasingly common. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 152 percent increase in single adult encounters between March 2020 and March 2021.

The SDC spokesperson said, "Fiscal year to date, 1,327 migrants have been encountered illegally entering the U.S. by sea off the California coast. This already exceeds the total for all of last year, 1,273."

Two smuggling operations in May resulted in the deaths of at least four people along the San Diego coast, both the result of overturned pangas in the water.

"Sea conditions, visibility, and weather are unimportant considerations to smugglers who continually prioritize profit by placing their victims in overcrowded small, open vessels with personal flotation devices that are often unsafe and insufficient," said Rafael Cabrera, the San Diego Air and Marine Branch director of Air and Marine Operations. His comment came from a press release after a panga apprehension in June.

A new marine unit from the SDC was launched in June, using two secured around flotation equipped (SAFE) boats to aid in apprehending the pangas that come into California waters.

SDC Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said in a press release, "We will take every opportunity to disrupt attempts to illegally enter the U.S., and with the addition of these two SAFE boats, those opportunities now include maritime avenues."

US Customs and Border Protection Process
Eight people were hospitalized and the rest remain missing after a panga smuggling boat capsized near Encinitas, California, on Thursday morning. Above, Customs and Border Protection agents search for Mexican smuggling boats in San Diego's harbor on March 8, 2006. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images