The frequency of maritime smuggling efforts have traditionally fluctuated like waves in the ocean, but now law enforcement authorities say the level just continues to rise.

We’ve been following maritime smuggling and how authorities are trying to stop the illegal movement of people and drugs through San Diego’s waters. Smuggling by land is far more common, but smuggling by water can be more challenging to police.

I recently talked with Mike Carney, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, to get an update on the recent maritime smuggling efforts. He helps manage a regional task devoted to patrolling San Diego’s waters and collecting intelligence on the smuggling operations. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

How are these operations organized? Are these small groups of smugglers or larger groups like the Mexican cartels?

You have the drug cartels … that I believe control the smuggling routes, ultimately. … [As] you go down the line, there’s groups or organizations or cells that specialize in aspects of the criminal enterprise. Everybody is paying a tribute back to the cartel that controls the smuggling corridor. In that fashion it’s organized, but it’s not like the truly hierarchal control of the traditional criminal organization, like the Mafia.

As far as organization, is there any difference between land and maritime smuggling? No, in that respect it’s the same. Any of the smuggling organizations that want to do business — whether they’re transporting drugs or people — they have to pay the tax to utilize that corridor.

Do different type of people attempt maritime smuggling compared to land smuggling? Maybe people of a higher socioeconomic status?

I haven’t seen any information that they are of a different socioeconomic status. It is more expensive to be smuggled by boat, but the bottom line is, people want to be successful in getting in the U.S., so it’s just a matter of how many times they want to attempt to get in via the land when they could pay a little bit more and have a better chance getting in via the water.

Do you have any grasp on how many smuggling operations we’re not catching?

I can say we know we’re not getting all of them. It’s very difficult in terms of the area that needs to be patrolled. It’s like an area of 4,000 nautical miles that have to be patrolled with a couple of boats, and a plane or a helicopter here or there. We know we’re missing some of these boats, some of these smuggling events, but the good news is we’re doing a much better job than we were two years ago.

It was only a couple years ago [that] we were back on our heels with abandoned boats on the beach and life jackets and duffle bags, and we completely missed those boats coming in and the people absconded. I can’t think of when that’s happened in the last year.

Are there any signs that a boat may be smuggling people or drugs? What should residents consider suspicious?

Certainly if a recreational boater is out in the middle of the night and they see one of these Mexican pangas (a common Mexican fishing vessel) with 20 people on board, that’s a no brainer. There’s something wrong there.

The ones that are even more difficult for us to detect … are those smugglers that try to blend in with the recreational boat traffic … on weekends and when the weather is good.

Now there are certain nuances that the trained (border patrol) officers will … be looking for. They may have fishing gear on the deck, but they may not have bait, or they may not be fishing, or they may not be appropriately dressed for fishing. There are just little clues, little nuances that add up to suspicion.

How have you tried to deter maritime smuggling?

In the past we’ve used prosecution to drive the message home that we’re not going to tolerate maritime smuggling, and that had a bit of a chilling effect on the smugglers.

Is that still working?

We believe that [prosecution] will have a deterrent effect, but we haven’t seen that downturn yet, which is surprising.

At some point I think they’re going to run out of qualified boat drivers and maybe that will have the chilling effect that we want. Or they’re going to continue to go to less qualified people, which is an even more dangerous situation for the passengers.


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