May 17. 2021. 5:36

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Four killed as human-smuggling boat hits reef near San Diego, authorities say

About 30 people were aboard the 40-foot cabin cruiser when it hit rocks in rough weather. Photograph: EPA/San Diego Fire Department

Four people were killed and more than two dozen others were hospitalised after an overcrowded boat being used to smuggle migrants broke apart on a reef off the coast of San Diego on Sunday morning (about 6pm, Irish time), authorities have said.

About 30 people were aboard the 40-foot cabin cruiser when it hit the rocks in rough weather near Point Loma, a peninsula that separates the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay, according to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

The initial call arrived just before 10am and prompted a large emergency response, including the US Coast Guard and state and local agencies, as the magnitude of the incident became clear.

The boat had been pummeled to pieces by the surf by the time rescue boats arrived, said Rick Romero, lifeguard lieutenant for San Diego Fire-Rescue.

“When we arrived on the scene . . . there were people in the water, drowning, getting sucked out of the rip current,” he said.

Several people were pulled from the water and some required life-saving efforts on the beach. There had been about 30 people on the boat in severely crowded conditions without adequate safety equipment, authorities said.

“Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel, used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally,” said Jeff Stephenson, a Border Patrol agent.

The nationality of the people on the boat was not immediately known, Mr Stephenson said, adding that the captain was in custody and speaking with investigators.

Treacherous journey

The incident provided another reminder of the perils of crossing the US border by sea, a treacherous journey that migrants have undertaken with greater frequency during the past year, the authorities said. The vessel involved in Sunday’s incident was larger and held more people than most smuggling boats, according to the Border Patrol.

“The smugglers don’t really care about the people they’re exploiting,” Mr Stephenson said during a news conference. “All they care about is profit. To them, these people are just commodities.”

Some of the passengers had personal flotation devices, officials said, though it was not immediately clear whether there were enough for all of the passengers and whether they were wearing them.

Since late 2009, authorities in Southern California have caught more than 6,500 people entering US territory by water; about one-fifth of those were apprehended last year. Even without the perils of high-speed interdiction, California’s big surf and cool waters claim lives. Passengers have drowned after leaping from small craft for short swims to shore, including a man whose body washed up in La Jolla in 2017.

On occasion small wooden “panga” type vessels swamp or roll over, pitching people into waves or rip currents, as happened in August when two migrants died at Ocean Beach.

The incident on Sunday took place just three days after the Border Patrol said it had intercepted a panga 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma with 21 people on board. All 21 of that boat’s passengers – 15 men and six women – were Mexican nationals, according to authorities, who said that two smugglers from the vessel would face federal charges. – New York Times