• Wed. Dec 7th, 2022

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Body found on San Diego beach may be 2nd victim in ocean smuggling attempt

SAN DIEGO — A body discovered on a popular beach Monday may be that of a second victim of a weekend ocean smuggling attempt, authorities said.

Beachgoers on a morning walk Monday at the city’s Ocean Beach community spotted the body of a fully clothed man who, first responders think, may have been onboard a boat that capsized nearby Saturday night, city spokesman Jose Ysea said.

Officials are investigating, he said, but if the body is related to the capsized boat, it would be the accident’s second fatality.

Early Sunday, about an hour after responding to an overturned boat, lifeguards were notified by a few fishermen that they had seen a body floating in the nearby surf, said Lt. Rick Stell of San Diego Lifeguard Services.

That body washed ashore, and the person was pronounced dead at the scene, Stell said.

Three people were rescued as they struggled in waves as high as 8 feet, the lieutenant said. Three or four others made it to dry sand and fled, he said.

Authorities described the capsized vessel as a typical “panga,” small craft made of wood and aluminum and intended for fishing but used frequently by smugglers based in Mexico, 12 miles by sea from Ocean Beach.

A few hours after the rescue and recovery Sunday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials stopped a 24-foot boat about 3 miles off the San Diego coast and discovered 15 people thought to be undocumented migrants, a spokesperson for the agency said.

Two other boats with more than 50 suspected migrants were stopped off San Diego later in the day, the CBP said.

The migrants were turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol, it said.

Customs officials last year saw “record levels” of marine smuggling along the Southern California coast.

“Marine smuggling is extremely dangerous,” Reif Smith, deputy director of CBP offshore operations, told NBC San Diego. “The ocean is unforgiving. Any mistake on the water, anything, can cause a loss of life.”

Experts believe drug cartels and other smugglers have increasingly relied on routes by sea as the pandemic heavily restricted border crossings, like those in San Diego, where drugs and migrants once hid in plain sight among millions of annual crossers.

Last week, it was announced that the pilot of a smuggling boat that ran aground on a rocky San Diego shoreline last year, killing three of its passengers, pleaded guilty to human smuggling resulting in death.

Federal prosecutors said Antonio Hurtado admitted to taking drugs during the voyage, passing out, and then abandoning the 32 people onboard to reach the shore May 2, 2021.