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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007 | Viewed from the ocean on a beautiful, crisp winter afternoon, Tijuana looks peaceful. Across the gold-tinted blue of the water, whitecaps break against a rickety fence that stretches out incongruously into the ocean and marks the division between two worlds.

On board a U.S. Coast Guard 33-foot special purpose craft, guardsman Dustin Busse raises his binoculars and scans the long strip of beach that stretches south from the border fence into Mexico, past the oceanfront homes of Playas de Tijuana and the shadow of the Tijuana bullring. He’s looking for swimmers, kayakers, jetskiers and boats packed with would-be illegal border crossers who might be gearing up for a nautical dash north into the waters owned by the United States.

“There’s always a few there, waiting for the right moment,” he says.

In the last seven months, approximately 15 boats have either washed up or been intercepted off the coast of San Diego County by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Some of those boats, which were probably launched not far south of the border fence, have been abandoned unceremoniously late at night on well-populated beaches in neighborhoods like La Jolla and Del Mar.

Though this sort of water-borne migration is not a new phenomenon, immigration experts and security officials said the transporting of contraband humans and drugs through the currents and waves of San Diego’s coastal waters seems to have attracted a new breed of bootleggers willing to take greater risks for ever-swelling payouts.

As human smuggling rings face increased security measures on dry land, more and more gangs might push their operations west onto the ocean, immigration experts said.

Since Operation Gatekeeper was launched in 1994, increased policing of San Diego’s borders has forced smugglers to come up with exotic methods of getting people into the United States, pushing illegal crossers deep into the desert to the east, under the ground in tunnels and up the coastline.

And as the stakes are upped, the game of cat-and-mouse played between the Border Patrol and smugglers has become all the more dangerous for the passengers who pay thousands of dollars for a chance to cross the border, said Mike Unzueta a special agent with ICE.

“There is a whole host of potentially disastrous consequences from undertaking smuggling in this manner,” he said.

High season for human smuggling by sea is typically during the summer months, when people-runners hope to blend in with the throngs of pleasure craft that pour out into the ocean to take advantage of fair weather and favorable ocean conditions.

It’s in those months that teams like that led by Busse are busiest. Year-round Coast Guard patrol boats join forces with Customs and Border Protection vessels to cruise the coastline between Oceanside and Tijuana looking for suspicious craft and performing random checks. In the winter, those craft are usually few and far between, even on the most perfect days, but on a hot day or a holiday in the summer, it’s a different story.

“You know the Disney cartoon, ‘Finding Nemo,’ when they’re in there with all the jellyfish? It’s just like that out here — everywhere you look it’s sailboats,” Busse said.

But this year’s smuggling season has crept well into fall, with the latest abandoned boat being found in Del Mar in late November. A few days later, massive swells turned most of San Diego’s beaches and bays into churning masses of whitewater.

That so many boats have either washed up or been intercepted so late in the season has caught the eye of ICE investigators, who are currently trying to establish whether the recent spate of smuggling is the work of one sophisticated ring or several smaller players. Unzueta said his investigators have been poring over the abandoned boats, searching for forensic or other clues that might lead them to existing organizations or uncover a pattern.

Victor Clark-Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, said he knows a number of human smugglers who have been active in Tijuana for decades. Though he stressed that smugglers who use boats still represent the vast minority of people-runners, Clark-Alfaro said he’s seen a clear uptick in marine-based smuggling.

“What probably happened is that in recent weeks or months, one of the groups of smugglers suddenly decided to use more frequently the method of crossing immigrants by boat. But it is not because it’s a new method,” he said.

That doesn’t mean human smugglers are going to turn wholesale to using boats, Clark-Alfaro said. Whoever has carried out the recent smuggling is likely to be a well-organized, well-funded group, he said, and in human smuggling such groups are the exception and not the rule.

But the recent practice of abandoning the smuggling boats once the illicit border crossers are safely ashore is a new tactic, Unzueta said. In past years, smugglers have dropped off their cargo on beaches before piloting their boats away to other parts of the county or back to Mexico.

That the smugglers are simply leaving the boats on beaches or rocks after dropping off their cargo suggests either a lack of sophistication, or that the payouts smugglers are receiving offer such high profit margins that abandoning the boats is a justifiable write-off, Unzueta said.

Gordon Hanson, director of the Center on Pacific Economies at University of California, San Diego, said that bringing people across the border illegally could have become so profitable that it has attracted drug smuggling rings into the game.

“The natural question is: Is this a bi-product, is this emblematic of drug traffickers participating more in human smuggling?” Hanson said.

Whoever is doing the smuggling, they are almost certainly making enough money to cover the cost of abandoning an old boat.

Clark-Alfaro said the going rate for being smuggled into the United States in a vehicle through a border crossing is $4,000. If migrants are prepared to walk with a coyote through remote deserts and mountains, that price is more like $1,800 to $2,000, Clark-Alfaro said. That’s the price for Mexicans, he added, while migrants from other countries like China or Russia could pay as much as $20,000 to enter the United States.

So the average 15-foot motorboat, packed with just 10 people, would probably generate carrying fees of at least $30,000 and up to $200,000. Unzueta said most of the boats his team of investigators has been looking at were probably bought for no more that $5,000, leaving plenty of room for a healthy profit. Interestingly, many of the boats appeared to have been bought in the United States and transported down to Mexico, Unzueta said.

But the one-way nature of these smuggling operations also raises other concerns for law enforcement agencies and migrant advocates. Some of the boats have been abandoned seemingly haphazardly. One was beached in a small cove right by the Children’s Pool in La Jolla that is overlooked by dozens of homes and a busy street. That suggests to Unzueta and others that the smugglers have little knowledge of either the local coastline or navigation methods.

San Diego is not prone to Floridian images of desperate migrants clinging to desiccated boats and migrants’ bodies washing up on the city’s beaches. However, experts warned that a marine disaster involving human smugglers could happen any day.

“It’s very dangerous, and you just hope they’re watching the surf reports, like you hope they’re watching the weather reports in the summer when they’re bringing people across the deserts,” Hanson said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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