SAN DIEGO — Border Patrol agents who work in the Pacific Ocean off the southern coast of California saw a dramatic increase in the number of arrests made over the past 12 months, an indication that the addition of new border wall in the region since 2017 is prompting smugglers to find new ways to move people and drugs into the United States.
“Over the past year, within 2020, we’ve had a record number of marine interdictions, including pangas [small, fast boats], jet skis, swimmers, and paddle boaters,” Border Patrol San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke told the Washington Examiner during a land and sea tour. “The wall structure itself is solidifying the land border, and it’s forcing the smugglers to come out into the maritime environment.”
Agents, using jet skis and boats to patrol the 20-mile stretch from Chula Vista at the border up past downtown San Diego, made 302 interdictions in fiscal 2020, which ran from Oct. 1, 2019, through Sept. 30, compared to 195 the previous year and 88 in 2015. One such incident resulted in the seizure of a small boat that was loaded with more than 3,000 pounds of methamphetamine.
Arrests of illegal immigrants and smugglers jumped 92% from 662 in 2019 to 1,271 in 2020. Comparatively, 219 people were arrested in 2015.
Border wall in this region stretches approximately 100 feet into the ocean, which prevents some unlawful entries, but cannot block people from jumping into the ocean and swimming around it or going the boating route. Smugglers will take off in boats from Tijuana and attempt to evade detection while entering U.S. waters, then order people on board to run ashore, where they can quickly blend in with the 3.3. million residents of San Diego County. Some smugglers will go 50 to 200 miles out into the ocean, then north, and finally back east to San Francisco or another Northern California town to try to avoid detection by federal agents and cameras that line the San Diego coast, Heitke said.
Because Tijuana and San Diego are heavily populated, it is easier for smugglers to hide narcotics or migrants who have paid them to get smuggled into the U.S. and then rush them across the border, by land or sea, at a moment’s notice.
“The reason San Diego is a big threat — you can be in a house, drinking coffee, full meal — [smugglers] have scouts on the border, and you’re just waiting for the go [ahead], as opposed to getting bused out to the desert,” Rodney Scott, the national chief of Border Patrol, told the Washington Examiner during a tour of the Otay Mesa mountain range. “We don’t know which house is loaded with narcotics. We don’t know which house is loaded with illegal aliens and how quickly they can get up here to the border, so we have to have more infrastructure, hence the double barrier, the entire system as opposed to just one barrier.”
Illegal immigration in the region peaked in the 1990s, when hundreds of people would jointly run through vehicle crossings or through the beach. Most people got away. Amid the crisis, the Clinton administration helped Border Patrol acquire metal scraps that were left over from the Vietnam War and had been used for helicopters to land in rice field paddies. The rickety metal barrier was between 6 and 12 feet tall, and it was agents’ only defense for the next two decades.
In response, smugglers cut through or climbed over the metal scraps and moved people and drugs over the border through remote areas near the mountain range. The new wall’s 18-mile run stretches from the coast high into the mountains. The addition of lighting and all-weather roads, which make it possible for agents to drive along the border in any weather condition, allow them to patrol in these rural areas, enabling them to detect and respond to illegal crossings and smuggling.
Border Patrol’s San Diego region has seen 53 miles of border wall added to its 60-mile area of responsibility, including the duplicate fencing. A small portion of the new wall was completed with funding from the final year of the Obama administration, but most was funded in federal budgets passed during the Trump administration. The foundation of the double-layer fencing goes up to 10 feet below the ground, preventing people from digging shallow tunnels into the U.S., as was possible with the Clinton-era metal scraps. It stretches from 18 feet to 30 feet tall and is comprised of steel fence posts filled with concrete and rebar. It starts at the coast and goes up into the mountains in Otay Mesa, California, significantly further than the scrap metal that was taken out. Construction teams are in the process of completing the wall over the mountains, a seemingly impossible task for how steep the terrain is here.
Agents in San Diego said this new wall and the technology that comes with it will be hard to get past for most people and will funnel others to areas where agents are present because they have been freed up to focus on less secure areas as a result of the new wall. Those who do attempt to climb over the wall will be better detected thanks to new cameras, sensors, radar systems, and underground fiber optic systems.
Border Patrol officials had expected smugglers to try new approaches, including taking to the water. Heitke said smugglers who do choose to go the boat route are being tracked, oftentimes by the cellphone they leave behind in a boat or when it is seized after they are arrested.
“The smuggler has a phone with them,” said Heitke. “We can dump the information on the phone and find the routes saying where they’re going, and we’re able to see an enormous range of travel, whether they go out 50 miles or 100 miles out, whether [they] go up 50 or 100 miles to land.”
Author: Anna Giaritelli
Source: Washington Examiner: New border wall in San Diego forces smugglers out to sea, where federal agents wait