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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkNews from Around the Americas | March 2008 

Night Riders: Border Patrol Agents Take to the Ocean
email this pageprint this pageemail usDan Simmons - NCTimes
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Pushed by powerful engines, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat speeds out of San Diego Bay. (Hayne Palmour IV/NCTimes)

Marine Interdiction Agents Mike Cross, left, Jeremy Thompson, and Border Patrol Agent Wendi Lee ride in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat off of Point Loma. (Hayne Palmour IV/NCTimes)

While under a bright moon, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat races past Point Loma as it enters San Diego Bay. (Hayne Palmour IV/NCTimes)
Increase in water 'crossings' seen in last few years

San Diego - It's dark and still in the harbor. All other boats are docked, and sensibly so - it's a touch above 50 degrees and just before 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night in February.

But Keley Hill, director of marine operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Branch in San Diego, and seven colleagues are geared up for a night at sea. It's going to be bitter cold, and they're dressed for it: ski goggles, face masks, down jackets and winter gloves.

In three daily shifts at all hours of day and night, year-round, Marine Interdiction agents patrol U.S. waters off San Diego, Hill said. Their goal: Enforce the liquid border separating the U.S. from Mexico.

That invisible border at sea has become an increasingly popular crossing spot for smugglers carrying illegal immigrants and illegal drugs. In 2007, Marine Interdiction agents intercepted 17 boats at sea and took 85 people into custody, said public affairs officer Juan Munoz-Torres. That's up from nine boats, and 29 people, caught at sea in 2006, he said.

The increase in smugglers, and the seemingly more brazen nature of the journeys, can be traced to improved enforcement of the land border by Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops, Hill said.

"It's like a tube of toothpaste," he said. "You squeeze one place, they'll go another place."

Enrique Morones, president and founder of Border Angels, a San Diego-based immigrants' rights nonprofit, agreed that the water crossings are a sign of desperation after security at the land borders has tightened so dramatically.

"People are crossing this way because there's no other way in," he said. And they're often not aware they'll be heading in by sea.

"People aren't planning to cross by ocean," he said, "but they get there and the coyotes say this is how you're going to do it."

Trends point to a longer smuggling season and longer routes into the country, officials said.

Between August and October of last year, at least five suspected smuggler boats washed ashore on North County beaches - three in La Jolla, two in Del Mar - Munoz-Torres said.

But smuggler traffic used to stop after August, said Lauren Mack, public information officer with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.

"What caught our eye was that a criminal smuggling operation was moving into the off-season, when we typically see a decrease," she said.

And the North County landings signaled longer journeys in, Munoz-Torres said. Previously, the smugglers "would go one mile out to sea, turn toward the coast and land in San Diego," he said. But beefed-up staffing since last summer has put more Marine Interdiction agents and boats on the water, he said, and led to a longer arc by smugglers.

"Now they go 10, 15, 20 miles before they turn, so they end up further north," Munoz-Torres said.

Typically, the smugglers cross at night, Hill said. They dare the choppy ocean waves in boats bought at auction for about $1,500, he said. The boats usually are half as long and a tenth as powerful as the 39-foot, 900-horsepower "go-fast boats" the agents drive. And the smugglers aren't typically deterred by fog, cold or rain.

"There are times when it's just jaw-dropping," Hill said of some of his encounters with smuggler boats. "I tell them, 'I can't believe you're out here.' "

No more "mom-and-pop" smugglers

The increased demand has driven up prices, Hill said, and made it a more lucrative - and competitive - enterprise. Just two years ago, he said, the going rate was about $900 per rider. Now, he said it's between $2,400 and $4,400.

The boats usually carry four to eight immigrants, Hill said, giving smugglers a profit ranging from $10,000 to $35,000 for a night's journey.

That has brought more sophisticated smuggler networks into the market, said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee of San Diego, a group that monitors public policy regarding border issues.

"What used to be a mom-and-pop operation has become more entangled with underground criminal networks," he said.

Mack agreed. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department opened an investigation last August into the criminal networks it believes are operating much of the smuggling activities.

"We're attempting to locate the ringleaders," she said.

The investigation continues, but the department has made at least two arrests at sea so far. Both persons, Dale Stamper and Scott Leo Paul, are U.S. citizens.

Paul, 51, was arrested by Marine Interdiction agents June 23.

He was driving a 16-foot 1989 Bayliner boat with five Mexican residents aboard, according to court documents.

The Mexicans told Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents that they were planning to pay him between $4,000 and $4,500 each for entry into the U.S., court documents show.

Paul pleaded guilty to two felony counts of bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain and was sentenced in December to a year and a day in federal prison, according to court documents.

Stamper was stopped by Marine Interdiction agents while driving a 19-foot boat without running lights just past midnight Nov. 15, according to court documents. With him were five Mexican citizens alleged to be entering the U.S. illegally.

With Stamper in the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, an agent accepted a call on the suspect's cell phone, according to a criminal indictment against him.

Posing as Stamper, the agent arranged a meeting later that morning with two men, Oscar Eduardo Prudencio and Hugo Israel Rodriguez-Arzate, in a bathroom at Pepper Park in San Diego.

The men believed they were going to meet the Mexican citizens, the indictment alleges. Instead, they were met - and arrested by - the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer.

Stamper, Prudencio and Rodriguez-Arzate were indicted in U.S. District Court in San Diego in January on multiple felony counts of bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain, among other charges.

The two cases reveal a larger truth about the changed nature of human smuggling, according to Rios.

"I think that at the point you have U.S. citizens involved there's a certain level of sophistication," he said.

No margin for error

"Make sure your clothing's secure or you'll lose it," Marine Interdiction agent Jeremy Thompson announced just before Hill gunned the engine that chilly February night.

Within seconds, the 39-foot "Midnight Express" boat was skipping over 4-foot waves at full throttle. The pyramid-topped skyscrapers and sandstone cliffs of downtown San Diego faded from view. Darkness took over.

"Just keep your knees flexed and try to absorb the impact on your spine," Thompson said as the boat thudded over the waves.

Hill stopped about a mile out from the harbor. He met up with a Coast Guard boat - the two agencies work closely together - for a quick briefing, then sat in waiting. The boat sloshed around in the swells. The smugglers often bob in the waves, Hill said, nestling in to avoid detection.

The great majority of intercepts happen 12 miles out and in, Thompson said, but there's no pattern to where along the coast they catch up with the smugglers.

"We'll go north, we'll go west, we'll go south," he said. "It just depends."

They rely on a variety of intelligence-gathering techniques on land, at sea and by air to locate smuggler boats, Hill said.

But one thing gives the smuggler boats away, Hill said: no running lights. Fishing boats, yachts and all other legal seagoing vessels drive with lights on for safety. Smuggler boats usually drive without lights to avoid detection but, ironically, attract it, he said.

The smugglers tend to flee initially, he said, before resigning to their fate.

"This is what we do for a living," he said, "so not many people are going to outdrive us."

Thompson said the smugglers operate with no regard for safety.

"These guys are putting (their passengers) at risk by doing this," he said. "These boats could break apart at any time because they're not worth anything."

Hill agreed, saying that despite 17 years as a professional, trained pilot of oceangoing vessels, "I'm still learning things every day."

And he acknowledged that the daily patrols in ocean swells takes its toll on the agents, as well.

"I love this job, but I've probably paid for my chiropractor's Land Rover and my orthopedic surgeon's Porsche," he joked.

Contact staff writer Dan Simmons at dsimmons(at)

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