The person thought to have been captain of the capsized vessel suspected of smuggling migrants off the coast of San Diego has been taken into custody.
Four people died and more than 20 were sent to hospital when the ship overturned on Sunday.
The 40-foot ship was carrying 29 people when it crashed into a reef and fell apart near the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma around 10:30am local time.
Out of the 25 survivors, one is in critical condition, according to a statement from the US Coast Guard.
Customs and Border Protection Supervisory Agent Jeff Stephenson said during a press conference on Sunday: “Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally.”
While the name of the man suspected of being behind the smuggling operation has not been made public, Mr Stephenson said during the press conference that agents were with the suspect as Mr Stephenson was speaking to the press.
The deputy director of air operations for CBP in San Diego, Brandon Tucker, told reporters that the suspected captain of the alleged smuggling boat was “a bit out of it, but he is speaking to agents on scene”.
Mr Stephenson said the boat was “severely overcrowded” when it capsized.
After several agencies responded to the call for aid, six people were rescued from the water while many others were able to swim to shore on their own, according to Lifeguard Lt Rick Romero from San Diego Fire-Rescue.
Mr Romero said the passengers sustained physical injuries and some suffered from hypothermia.
He said: “Conditions were pretty rough, five to six feet of surf, windy, cold, water is around 60 degrees, so you get hypothermia pretty quickly.”
“The boat was on the reef, bouncing back and forth, and then just slowly disintegrated into a bunch of pieces, so there’s no boat there, it’s all debris,” he added.
Mr Romero said the boat was equipped with life jackets but it was not clear how many of the passengers had been using them. He added that the vessel didn’t have a manifest, meaning he was unable to determine if any of those on board were children.
Mr Stephenson told reporters that they have yet to ascertain the nationalities of those on the boat.
The 40-foot vessel was larger than the migrant boats authorities usually encounter off the coast of southern California.
“We’re assuming that it was illegal migration, but generally they are smaller, in the 20 to 30-foot range, generally about 20-plus migrants,” Mr Tucker said.
“This one was a bit larger than normal, but for overcrowding on these vessels, the unsafe conditions on these vessels, it’s the same, it’s just slightly larger,” he added.
In a press release sent out on Friday, Customs and Border Protection said: “Law enforcement officials are ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego this weekend, particularly warning potential border crossers of the dangers of trying to illegally enter the US at sea.”
Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said: “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently. All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits.”
The director of Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations in San Diego, Michael Montgomery, said in the Friday release: “When we interdict suspect vessels, we routinely find unsafe conditions, with people overcrowded into small boats without necessary safety equipment.
“The individuals on board these small vessels, trying to enter the US illegally, frequently are not told of the dangers they will face on their journey and are not prepared. They will end up far out to sea, in a small boat without adequate food, water, safety gear, or protection against the elements.”
Law enforcement in southern California has arrested at least 6,500 people attempting to enter the US illegally by sea since late 2009.
Mr Stephenson said there was a 92 per cent increase in apprehensions taking place at sea in 2020 compared to 2019.
The accident took place just three days after Border Patrol said it has stopped a small wooden boat with 21 people on board 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma.
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