Special report: How CBP boats work to catch human, drug smugglers off California coast

Border Report

SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — With loud sirens and flashing lights, marine interdiction agents pursue anything from jet skis to large cabin cruisers out in the Pacific Ocean, working to curtail human and drug smuggling into the U.S.

These agents are part of the Air and Marine Branch within Customs and Border Protection based in San Diego.

Together with fellow agents in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, they create a dragnet out on the water.

“We are air and marine operations. We rely on our air a lot of times to spot those vessels that are coming north even before they cross the maritime boundary line. We want to make sure we are working synergistically,” Evan Wagley said. “We can either be called out if they spot something or we can go out and intercept them or while we’re on patrol, if we spot a boat that looks suspicious, we can stop them, board them and ask them where they came from, what they are doing. If they are smuggling, we initiate the intercept there and bring them into customs dock and have everyone arrested.”

Wagley is one of the interdiction officers who work on CBP boats that can go as fast as 70 miles per hour.

“Our job is twofold, obviously we want to protect the interests of the United States, but two, is to essentially save these people from this maritime environment, any of these criminal organizations are marketing their services to these migrants who sometimes have never been on a boat,” he said. “San Diego at night can be downright freezing, especially on the water. These people sometimes don’t even have shoes, don’t have pants or sweaters. It’s a T-shirt, shorts and maybe a backpack. They’re on the water for four, six, eight, sometimes 20 hours at a time. Some of them are extremely seasick, which means they’re dehydrated because they’ve been vomiting the whole trip, so we want to bring them into safety.”

According to Wagley, CBP can’t be out on the water or in the air all the time, and some boats and their cargo do make it to shore as far north as Central California.

This method of entering the United States has proven to be very dangerous. Earlier this year, a 40-foot cabin cruiser broke apart after hitting some rocks along the San Diego coastline. Three migrants died and more than two dozen were injured.

Evan Wagley is a Marine Interdiction Agent with CBP’s Air and Marine Branch in San Diego. (Elliot Macias/KSWB)

“They’ll take any boat — any means necessary to enter into the United States illegally,” Wagley said. “I don’t think it’s worth any amount of money to be smuggled especially here in this maritime environment because it can be so unforgiving,”

In spite of the dangers, migrants keep coming, leading to a record number of apprehensions.

Stopping these vessels can be dangerous for everyone involved, especially when smugglers refuse to stop and start navigating erratically, hoping to get away.

“All they’re thinking about is getting away and they do it at any cost — sometimes at the cost of the safety of the people they are smuggling, the safety of us involved as well. We want to do it as safely and efficiently as possible and get those people out of harm’s way,” Wagley said.

According to Wagley, this cat and mouse game can go on for hours.

“We have our siren going. We also have a loud hailer, so we will literally be yelling at them to stop,” he said. “We want to give them every opportunity to have them stop on their own.”

Most smugglers don’t give up and only stop when they run out of fuel or when agents end up using a special shotgun to disable a boat’s engines.

“Year over year it’s grown,” he said. “Events that we’ve had here locally, and that includes our norther AOR that includes L.A. and Long Beach.”

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