SAN DIEGO — U.S. border agents found a dead migrant on an abandoned panga fishing boat in Carlsbad this past April. A month later, a cabin cruiser, overloaded with three dozen migrants, crashed into a reef near Point Loma, killing three people. Then, after a boat capsized near Encinitas in July, two migrants were hospitalized with hypothermia.
Customs and Border Protection agents stopped more migrants at sea in 2020 than during the previous three years, according to CBP data. Apprehensions along the Pacific Coast drove that increase, increasing from 44 stops in fiscal year 2017, to 766 in 2020.
Encounters at sea are still substantially lower than those on land, but experts say the shift to maritime crossings — in response to restrictive border policies and the devastation from COVID-19 across the hemisphere — is amplifying the danger these migrants face as they seek to reach the United States.
Since Oct. 1, 2020, agents in the CBP's San Diego region, which stretches along the California coast from Imperial Beach to the Oregon border, have intercepted more than 330 marine vessels with 1,751 people. The number of people includes the migrants intercepted and U.S. citizens suspected of smuggling them.
Border officials acknowledged in an August news release the movement northward of smugglers along the California coast. Recently, agents have stopped boats farther north up the coast, near Long Beach, Catalina Island, Malibu and Santa Barbara.
One of the three people who drowned in the cabin cruiser crash last May was Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia, a 41-year-old single mother of two. It was her fifth attempt at crossing the border.
Chavez had made three attempts by land. Smugglers priced a successful crossing at $14,000. But each time, border agents had returned her to Tijuana within a couple hours. Back in Mexico, she would phone her younger sister, who lived in Salinas, to let her know she was safe.
After her third attempt by land, she told her sister she didn't think she would make it over the border without getting caught. For an extra $4,000, the smugglers suggested a sea crossing.
In late April, Chavez got on a boat for the first time with nine other migrants. But the group was intercepted at sea and returned to Mexico. Afterward, she told her sister: "It was scary, hermana. But they say it's safe and that I'll make it on the next try."
'Exposed until you hit land'
The plight of maritime migrants in Europe and other parts of the world has received an outsize share of media attention. In California, land border crossings dominate the narrative.
But for CBP marine agents like Evan Wagley, that's changing. Wagley coordinated the agency's response to the abandoned panga boat on April 17 and called the medical examiner to retrieve the body. Authorities never determined who was responsible for the tragedy, he said.
"Once these pangas make landfall, they can get in a car within minutes," Wagley said of smuggling groups. "We have no way of knowing who drove it, who was in it. That makes our job tough, especially when there's deceased people involved, because that's the last thing we want to see."
San Diego has the fourth-largest port in California. Hitting the water each day on a 41-foot speedboat near Coronado Beach, CBP agents check other vessels for migrants, drugs and other contraband. Mostly, they intercept boats carrying migrants. A journey of even a few hours can be dangerous, Wagley said. Boats carrying migrants almost never have enough life vests or water. Some people end up with bruised ribs or concussions from turbulent seas. Prolonged sun exposure brings dehydration, seasickness and hyperthermia.
"When people think of San Diego they think of blue skies and sun, but once you get off shore it can be unforgiving," said Wagley, an experienced fisherman who joined CBP's Air and Marine Operations from Border Patrol in Calexico.
Near Playas de Tijuana, where a steel border fence extends 300 feet into the water, CBP agents commonly intercept people on jet skis and kayaks, as well as swimmers. Smugglers will take one or two people at a time, hoping they blend in with regular beachgoers, and head for the closest landing north of the border, Wagley said. Farther up, the traffic shifts to boats between 20 and 50 feet.
On a sunny day in August, the Los Angeles Times accompanied CBP agents who shadowed a working team. Agents heading back from the Tijuana border spotted a shabby sailboat and stopped to question the two passengers.
It was a fairly windy day but the driver was using the motor instead of the sails. That could be suspicious, Wagley explained, because many smugglers don't know how to sail.
Agents Charles Cason and Nathan Wickham boarded the boat to perform a document check. They asked where the sailors were coming from and going, who the registered owner was and checked the cabin for any other passengers. With everything clear, the agents continued on their way back to Point Loma.
Early that morning, a different crew had reported a boat off Point Loma going south and attempted to pull the driver over. He fled.
Agents fired multiple rounds to stop the engine. They boarded the boat just before 6 a.m., four miles from where the chase had started, and reported one man, a Mexican citizen, on board. Agents believe he had just dropped off migrants into the U.S. and was on his way back to Mexico.
"It's really a culmination of desperation on the migrants' part and business practices on the criminal organizations' part," Wagley said. "They're looking to exploit these people to make a buck."
That was the case for Maria Eugenia Chavez Segovia. Smugglers told one of her sisters, who lives in Salinas, that Chavez would be on a big boat that would start in Ensenada and stop at a restaurant along the way so as to not look suspicious. That sister asked The Times not to publish her first name out of fear of retribution from organized crime groups.
At 8 a.m. on May 2, Chavez told her sister she was going to try again. By the next day, when the sister still hadn't heard from Chavez, she asked one of the smugglers what happened.
"There was an accident, but nothing happened," he told her, assuring her that everything was fine.
Evolving migratory hot spots
Last year, maritime apprehensions in Southern California surpassed even those in the Caribbean, CBP data show, and were more than three times the number out of the Miami region.
The Miami region saw a high of 2,095 apprehensions in 2016 due to the sharp increase in Cuban migration following then-President Barack Obama's renewal of ties with the island nation. But apprehensions there sharply declined after Obama did away with a longstanding policy allowing Cubans who show up at a port of entry to apply for permanent residency.
There is still significant movement in the Caribbean, with a recent uptick in Haitians fleeing their impoverished and politically unstable nation by boat. Border authorities have intercepted more than 1,000 Haitian migrants at sea during the past year.
Haitian migrants are also arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border on land. Thousands were expelled last month from Texas after making their way up through Central and South America.
Some immigrant advocates say the United States' restrictive, pandemic-era border policy is in large part behind the increased attempts by migrants to cross the San Diego border by sea. Federal officials use that policy, known as Title 42 for the section of the health statute where it originated, to quickly expel migrants who are stopped along the U.S. border "in the interest of public health" without allowing them to apply for asylum.
Luis Magaña, an advocate for farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley, helped Chavez's family in the aftermath of her death. He said the issue goes beyond Title 42 and other recent changes in border enforcement, or even the economic impact of COVID-19 in the migrants' countries of origin.
Migrants used to come and go easily in response to labor demands. During World War II, the U.S. signed agreements with Mexico to bring in temporary farm laborers. When those workers returned home to Mexico, they had contacts of people who could help others gain safe passage to the U.S. for work, Magaña said. But in the 1990s when the federal government started cracking down on illegal immigration, people found new routes to enter the country.
"All of this migration is because they interrupted a system," he said. "These days, it's organized crime. The typical coyote has changed."
When one migration route is made harder, others pop up, said Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow and co-founder at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and author of the 2016 book "All at Sea: The Policy Challenges of Rescue, Interception, and Long-Term Response to Maritime Migration."
"Homeland Security has built out the border into the Pacific Ocean quite a ways, but they're never going to cover the whole ocean," she said. "The farther they build it out, the farther the boats will go. And the route becomes more dangerous and often more expensive."
Maritime crossings to the U.S. are inherently riskier, in part because of high interception rates, Newland said. But it's impossible to know the real casualty rates globally, she said, "because even their skeletons won't be discovered."
"It's a risk calculation," she said. "Because the attention has been much more on the land border, smugglers may be selling the story that nobody is watching the coast. But they are."
Authorities might be less on the lookout for a cabin cruiser like the one that crashed in Point Loma in May, said Newland. Pleasure crafts are more expensive to operate than fishing boats, which are the most common. But she said such boats could be a new strategy on the part of smugglers.
After the accident with Chavez's boat, her sister asked one of the smugglers with whom she'd had contact for a photo, and the image he sent of a capsized boat made her uneasy. Her 18-year-old daughter found news reports and started calling hospitals.
"For us the loss is still so sad," Chavez's sister said in a recent interview. "I would like justice for her and for the other people."
But she is in the country illegally and said she was afraid that if she talked to police, the smugglers would go after her. When they found out Chavez had died, she says the smugglers cut off communication.
The phone number she had, with a Mexican area code, now goes straight to voicemail.
San Diego Union-Tribune staff contributed to this report.