SAN DIEGO -- At least eight people were killed when two migrant-smuggling boats capsized in shallow but treacherous surf amid heavy fog, authorities said Sunday, marking one of the deadliest maritime human smuggling operations ever off U.S. shores.
A Spanish-speaking woman on one of the boats called 911 Saturday night to report the other vessel overturned in waves at Black's Beach, authorities said. She said there were 15 people on the capsized vessel and eight on hers.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department lifeguards responded to the 911 call around 11:30 p.m. Saturday, according to department spokesperson Monica Muñoz.
The caller said in Spanish she and other passengers of a panga boat, a small fishing vessel, had reached the shores of the beach, a secluded strip of sand beneath the bluffs of Torrey Pines on the Pacific Ocean.
The caller said that another panga boat had capsized.
By the time lifeguards arrived, their attempts to reach the beach were hampered by high tide and a heavy fog. They found both boats were capsized and inside the shoreline. No survivors were found.
Lifeguards found "lifeless bodies and two overturned pangas spread over an area of about 400 yards," Muñoz said. "Several life jackets and fuel barrels were also found.
"Lifeguards pulled victims from knee-deep water and from the waterline up the beach to dry sand," she added.
San Diego Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said rescuers found the two boats overturned in shallow waters when they arrived. Surf was modest, with swells around 3 feet, but skies were foggy and black.
"That area is very hazardous, even in the daytime," Gartland said at a news conference. "It has a series of sandbars and in-shore rip currents, so you can think that you can land in some sand or get to waist-high, knee-high water and think that you're able to be safe to exit the water, but there's long, in-shore holes. If you step into those holes, those rip currents will pull you along the shore and back out to sea."
Black's Beach is about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego in a secluded area not far from the popular La Jolla Shores. Its reputation for some of the best breaks in Southern California draws many surfers.
Gartland said he could not confirm demographic details of the dead or surviving passengers. It was not immediately clear how many people officials believed remained unaccounted for. It was also unclear where the boats were coming from.
Survivors could have taken one of several steep trails up the beachside cliffs, including one that arrives at La Jolla Farms, a wealthy San Diego enclave of gated, multimillion-dollar homes.
Search efforts at Black's Beach were continuing Sunday as dozens of surfers in wet suits tackled the waves.
Responders from the Coast Guard and U.S. Border and Customs Protection and lifeguards were working at the site where two boats with outboard motors were perched on the sand, right side up. In both were strewn life jackets, plastic bags and clothing. One boat had the top of its motor smashed.
Rescuers have responded to dozens of calls this year involving swimmers, surfers and mariners.
Hundreds of maritime smuggling operations occur every year off California's coast and sometimes turn fatal. In May 2021, a packed boat carrying migrants capsized and broke apart in powerful surf along the rocky San Diego coast, killing three people and injuring more than two dozen others.
Smuggling off the California coast has ebbed and flowed over the years but has long been a risky alternative for migrants to avoid heavily guarded land borders. Pangas enter from Mexico in the dead of night, sometimes charting hundreds of miles north. Recreational boats try to mix in unnoticed with fishing and pleasure vessels during the day.
South of the U.S. border, there are many secluded, private beaches with gated entrances between high-rises with magnificent ocean views, some only partially built because funds dried up during construction. Popotla, a fishing hamlet where narrow streets are lined with vendors selling a wide variety of local catch, is favored among smugglers for its large, sandy beach and relatively gentle waves.
In the first two months of 2023, about 600 people were apprehended on the waters off San Diego, according to Jason Givens, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In the prior two years, about 3,500 migrants were apprehended by Border Protection agents off San Diego's coasts, he said, adding that "the majority, and perhaps all of the incidents, were part of a criminal smuggling operation."
At least 23 people have died in smuggling cases in Southern California since 2021, said Capt. James Spitler, sector commander of the U.S. Coast Guard in San Diego.
"Sadly, this tragedy continues and has been happening for quite some time," he said.
"This is not necessarily people trying to find a better life," he added. "This is part of a transnational criminal organization network to smuggle people into the United States."
At least some of Saturday's victims were Mexican, according to the consulate in San Diego, but how many was unknown. Illegal crossings have soared under President Joe Biden, with many migrants turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and being released in the United States to pursue their cases in immigration court.
A pandemic rule scheduled to end May 11 denies migrants a chance to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of covid-19, but enforcement has fallen disproportionately on Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans because those have been the only nationalities that Mexico agreed to take back.
As a result, people of those four countries have been more likely to try to elude capture, knowing they are likely to be expelled under the public health rule, known as Title 42 authority. Mexico recently began taking back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans under Title 42.
Information for this article was contributed by Elliot Spagat, Gregory Bull and Christopher Weber of The Associated Press and by Emily Schmall and Sara Clemence of The New York Times.