Black's Beach in San Diego is shown on March 20, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

With more than six months left in the fiscal year, 2023 is already the deadliest year for maritime smuggling since at least 2019. A smuggling attempt from earlier this month – which turned into tragedy after eight people drowned and two boats capsized near Blacks Beach in La Jolla – tipped the death toll well over that seen in previous years. 

Authorities have confirmed 13 deaths resulting from smuggling attempts along the Southern California coast so far in fiscal year 2023, which runs from October through September. 

Why This Matters

The Blacks Beach tragedy – what could be one of the deadliest maritime smuggling attempts in San Diego history – highlights the grave reality of the risks that migrants are willing to take to reach the U.S. Immigration advocates say restrictive border policies have made those migrants increasingly desperate.

That’s more than double the five deaths in the previous fiscal year, according to the Southern California Regional Coordinating Mechanism, or ReCom, a group of local, state and federal agencies. Five people also died in 2021, four in 2020 and three in 2019.

The Blacks Beach tragedy follows several years of dramatic increases in maritime smuggling along the Southern California coast – of both contraband and migrants. 

One official called the tragedy one of the worst in San Diego, and possibly California, maritime smuggling history.

Immigration advocates say policies that restrict access to the U.S. asylum system, like Title 42, have made some migrants more desperate in their attempts to reach the U.S., and thus have led to more deaths.   

“Nobody wakes up and just wants to cross in the most dangerous way possible, but they’re put into a position where they don’t feel like they have a choice to save their lives,” Hollie Webb, a supervising attorney with Al Otro Lado, a binational immigrant rights law firm, said in December. 

Title 42, a pandemic-era policy set to end in May, allows immigration officials to quickly turn away migrants at the border without considering their asylum claims. Advocates including Webb said the policy has forced thousands of hopeful migrants to wait in border cities like Tijuana, where they’ve faced kidnapping, extortion, rape and other violent attacks. 

Yet maritime smuggling makes up just a fraction of the deaths among migrants attempting to cross from Mexico into the U.S. In fiscal year 2022, more than 890 migrants died in their attempts to enter the U.S. along the southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

The Mexican Consulate in San Diego also reported an uptick in deaths among its citizens who attempted to cross into the U.S. Last fiscal year, 46 Mexican nationals died in an attempt to cross the border along San Diego County. Five of those deaths were drownings.

The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office has released the names of six victims in the Blacks Beach incident so far: Alma Rosa Figueroa Gorgonio, 17, Yecenia Lazcano-Soriano, 22, Guillermo Suarez Gonzalez, 23, Ana Jacqueline Figueroa Perez, 23, Eloy Hernandez-Baltazar, 48, and Paul Diaz Lopez, 50. 

The names of the two remaining victims have not been released because their next of kin have not been reached. Their ages are 29 and 33. 

Officials were first alerted to the incident shortly before midnight on March 11 after a Spanish-speaking woman called 911 and reported that one of two panga boats near Blacks Beach had capsized and people were in the water, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Marine Interdiction Agents Kurt Nagel, left, and Elias Palma operate a boat near Sunset Cliffs for the Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations, Nov. 30, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The woman said she was one of eight passengers on one panga boat and the other boat carried eight to 15 passengers. 

By the time authorities arrived, they found two panga boats capsized and no survivors. 

All eight victims are believed to be Mexican nationals, according to the Mexican Consulate.

Carlos González Gutiérrez, consul general, warned migrants against attempting to cross into the U.S. without documentation, saying in a press release that smugglers take advantage of needy migrants by “distorting reality, creating false expectations, and exposing them to high-risk conditions where they may lose their lives.”

A spokesperson declined to say whether Customs and Border Protection plans to increase marine patrols off San Diego’s coast or take any additional steps to stop maritime smuggling, given the recent increase in deaths.

Instead, spokesperson Jason Givens said, the Black’s Beach tragedy was “the result of callous human smugglers, who have no regard for human life.”

“It’s essential for anyone looking to use the services of these smuggling organizations to understand they are putting their life at risk.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...