A Mexican fishing boat reportedly loaded with 26 people came ashore near Belmont Park in South Mission Beach Monday morning, May 5, and everyone onboard got away — in part because of a witness's problems with the emergency calling system.
The witness told the U.S. Border Patrol that he called the San Diego Police Department's emergency line and was directed to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement — not the Border Patrol.
The call eventually got to the Border Patrol's dispatcher. When Border Patrol agents arrived on scene, they found the abandoned boat with 26 life vests in it, agents confirmed. But the smugglers had long since fled. The witness said they ran past him in the parking lot near Belmont Park and got into a white van waiting to pick them up.
San Diego police officer Matt Portorella and California Highway Patrol officer Robert Catano checked their 911 dispatch records and said they didn't get such a call. If they had, both officers indicated that their 911 dispatch can forward the call to the Border Patrol.
"We would have started a log on it and forwarded it," Catano said. Portorella worked in Western Division, which includes Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach and said he remembers working such calls. "I can tell you from my own experience that we responded to such calls," he said.
Border Patrol union official Gabe Pacheco said that since events like this are relatively new to the public, they probably don't know there's a direct line people can call to get to the Coastal Enforcement Team (800-854-9834 or 619-778-5244).
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack, illegal immigrants are paying between $6,000 and $10,000 per person to enter the U.S. by panga these days. The drivers sometimes also carry narcotics onboard. The travelers and their families pay some part of the smuggling fee in advance and the rest when the person is delivered, so the smugglers tend to hold on to their customers until the fee is paid in full.
Pangas are turning up as far north as Santa Cruz County loaded with marijuana. In the past two years, seven have been busted or washed ashore in San Luis Obispo County, according to news reports.