SoCal’s ‘Smuggler’s Corridor’ Is Getting Crowded
By: Jack Innis | Thursday, May 29, 2008 3:06:00 PMLast updated: Thursday, May 29, 2008 3:06:00 PMWhat’s being done to keep boaters safe off San Diego?
— A recent increase in the use of small boats to smuggle narcotics and illegal aliens from Mexico into the United States in the Southern California region has local authorities scrambling to combat the practice. And the federal government has announced that because small craft may be used for even more heinous purposes, it is now considering plans that may affect recreational boaters.
Photo by: U.S. Coast Guard/Anastasia Devlin photoMaintaining Boaters’ Safety — Patrols have increased on San Diego Bay and offshore following a wave of incidents in which boats suspected of smuggling drugs or immigrants have entered U.S. waters or ended up on San Diego County beaches. Photo by: U.S. Coast Guard/Anastasia Devlin photoHeightened Watch — Because the Coast Guard cannot patrol every location off San Diego at every moment, the Department of Homeland Security’s America’s Waterway Watch and Small Vessel Security Strategy programs were designed to urge boaters to be alert to suspicious activities near or on the water. Called “Smuggler’s Corridor,” the nearshore waters between Ensenada, Mexico and Del Mar, Calif. have witnessed a dramatic surge in boat-based smuggling attempts.

“San Diego has always been a very popular smuggler’s corridor,” said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman in San Diego Lauren Mack. “However, there’s been an increase in human smuggling in the last year.”

The practice of ferrying drugs and illegal aliens across the border by small boat became somewhat common after Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994.

Operation Gatekeeper increased manpower and led to the installation of double fences, lights, motion sensors and other technology along the U.S./Mexico border at San Ysidro and part of Otay Mesa. The project was designed to force smugglers away from southern San Diego urban areas and into the rural East County, where detection would be easier.

But shortly after Operation Gatekeeper began, the Coast Guard noticed an increase in smuggling attempts by sea. These attempts increased when the fence along the U.S./Mexican border was lengthened and strengthened as part of the Secure Fence Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006. The program calls for hundreds of miles of fencing and other barriers along the border to be completed by the end of 2008.

According to a recent San Diego Union-Tribune report, 10 boats were seized and 44 illegal immigrants were arrested during ICE’s most recent complete fiscal year, between October 2006 and September 2007.

From October 2007 through press time, 16 vessels have been seized and 64 immigrants arrested along Smuggler’s Corridor.

In addition, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents reported seizing 28 smuggling vessels that contained more than 100 illegal immigrants since June 2007.

The Coast Guard is deeply involved, but not so willing to talk about apprehensions and trends.

“Citizens have seen accounts of some of our failures: boats presumed to be used for smuggling found empty on beaches as far north as Del Mar,” said Capt. Chip Strangfeld, commanding officer of Coast Guard Sector San Diego. “We have had some successes, but we can’t always talk about them because doing so might compromise our ongoing activities.”

Most human trafficking through Smuggler’s Corridor can be traced to an organization or organizations that are using “old, rickety boats bought in the United States for cash,” Mack said. These boats are often trailered across the border into Northern Baja California, brought into U.S. waters mostly under cover of darkness, and abandoned along the shore or in bays once the cross-border trip is completed.

“They beach and abandon the boats and race to waiting cars,” Mack said. “What’s new is that the groups are operating in the winter months, with treacherous sea conditions and cold water. In the past, we’d get a surge of activity in the summer, as the smugglers tried to blend in with recreational boaters.”

Bigger Threat
While Southern California-based agencies work hard to outman and outmaneuver those who are trafficking humans and narcotics along Smuggler’s Corridor, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has larger worries.

In April in Washington D.C., DHS’s Small Vessel Security Summit unveiled a report that documents agency fears about recreational boats eventually being used for purposes much more sinister than smuggling illegal alien workers and narcotics.

“Security risks for small vessels can be broken down into four general categories,” the report stated:

* Small vessels can be used to smuggle weapons, including Weapons of Mass Destruction.

* Pleasurecraft could be used as “Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices,” such as the explosive-laden suicide boat bomb that detonated alongside USS Cole in Yemen and took the lives of 17 American sailors in October 2000.

* Recreational vessels may be used to smuggle terrorists into the U.S.

* Small craft might be used as platforms for standoff weapons, such as shoulder-fired rockets or mortars, to attack maritime or other important targets.

With an estimated 77 million boaters, 17 million boats and 95,000 miles of coastline to protect in the United States, DHS has been eyeing ways to keep tabs on recreational boaters.

Their plan sounds Orwellian in military-speak: “Appropriate risk-targeting systems need to be developed that fuse risk data with risk-based decision-making systems,” the report states. “This will allow the separation of high-risk vessel operations from the everyday small vessel landscape and employ limited enforcement resources effectively to directly reduce those known risks.”

The first idea floated to separate high-risk vessels from the everyday small vessel landscape would have required federal boat licensing and I.D. cards for every recreational boat operator. However, disapproval from boating organizations kept that idea from getting past the “drawing board” stage.

Since then, officials from the Coast Guard and DHS have toured harbors and marinas to talk with recreational marine industry leaders and individual boaters. Word on the waterfront is that the focus has now shifted to registering and regulating recreational boats -- not boaters -- on the federal level.

Deadliest Catch
To some recreational boaters, Southern California’s Smuggler’s Corridor already seems like a war zone.

The bays and nearshore waterways are under constant scrutiny by patrol vessels, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft -- from a confusing array of organizations, including the Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, Army, CBP, ICE, San Diego Harbor Police, San Diego Maritime Task Force, San Diego Police Department Harbor Unit (Mission Bay), San Diego City Lifeguards and others.

Agency vessels used here range from personal watercraft to rigid-hull inflatables and from ultra sleek “go-fast” boats to the ubiquitous Coast Guard cutters.

Catching smugglers in the act is a tricky business -- one that requires good intelligence sources, high technology and great deal of time spent on the water.

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Strangfeld said. “Our opponents are adaptable, flexible and responsive.”

And possibly dangerous.

According to Strangfeld, a report presented to the U.S. Attorney General showed that last year nearly 25 percent of illegal aliens (144,000 out of 600,000 individuals) apprehended by CBP and other agencies had criminal records in the United States prior to being taken into custody. Coupled with a recent rise in violence in Tijuana, many boaters wonder whether they should be concerned with their own safety while operating in Smuggler’s Corridor.

“There’s nothing to suggest that innocent recreational boaters have become somehow wrapped up in on-the-water crimes-in-progress,” Strangfeld said. “It’s a possibility, but so far it has not played out that way.”

From information garnered by intelligence officers in the United States and their counterparts in Mexico, most of the human and narcotics smuggling in Smuggler’s Corridor can be attributed to smaller operations -- “not the violent drug cartels,” according to Mack.

“We’re not aware of any connection between the boat-based smuggling and major drug cartels,” Mack said. “However, it’s possible that the smugglers have to pay fees, possibly to cartels, to cross Tijuana with drugs.”

Storm Surge
To weather the storm of increased activity along Smuggler’s Corridor, agencies have already increased manpower and borrowed assets from other areas, where possible.

Although authorities are tight-lipped about the exact number of agents, patrol craft, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in use, the Coast Guard acknowledged it has brought more assets into the area as a result of increased smuggling.

“There’s been a 50-percent increase from last year, based on interdiction statistics,” Strangfeld said. “Part of that could be attributed to the fact that we have more on-the-water presence.”

To help get that presence, the Coast Guard has shifted some assets from Northern California down to Southern California and Northern Baja California.

“We’d like to see more technology and also have more on-the-water presence and are making the case for that,” Strangfeld said. “But we also have to acknowledge that the numbers (of interdictions at sea) pale to those on land.”

Uncle Sam Wants YOU
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, DHS has made great inroads in inspecting cargo and passenger ships bound for American ports. But keeping tabs on 17 million recreational boats is a daunting task.

On one hand, DHS views the enormous number of recreational vessels as a confusing backdrop from which it must pick out the bad guys -- hopefully before any wrongdoing occurs. On the other hand, the agency views recreational boaters as a possible asset.

Two programs -- America’s Waterway Watch and the recently unveiled Small Vessel Security Strategy -- urge boaters to be on the alert for suspicious behaviors on and near the water and to report such activities, if possible.

Suspicious activities can include anything from people appearing to be engaged in surveillance; people without relevant experience attempting to buy or rent fishing or recreational vessels with cash; unusual night operations; activities near sensitive locations, including under and around bridges, tunnels or overpasses; activities near industrial facilities, such as power plants and oil, chemical or water intakes; or activities near military bases, vessels, government facilities or security zones, one brochure states.

The Small Vessel Security Strategy speaks in broader terms: “The first goal is directed specifically at efforts to focus DHS component agencies on building partnerships and trust with the recreational boaters and professional mariners who make up the small vessel community,” according to a published fact sheet.

“The vast majority of professional and recreational operators are law-abiding citizens and safe users of the waterways,” the fact sheet states. “It is imperative that DHS enlist their aid as part of the solution to identify threats and report suspicious activities within the waters of the U.S.”

Locally, authorities engaged in the Smuggler’s Corridor would like to add a grass roots component to their fight.

“Generally, some boaters are willing to report what they see out there while others are not for fear of reprisals,” said Strangfeld. “We certainly don’t want any mariners approaching trouble. We advise using cell phones if possible and anonymously calling the National Response Center at (877) 24-WATCH.”

Boaters may also call (866) DHS-2ICE, according to Mack.