Boat capsized. Twenty-five passengers, fully clothed, flailing in the surf. Hypothermia setting in." Ed Vodrazka, 50, has a feeling he'll be hearing that call come in over the radio any day now. As a lieutenant lifeguard, Vodrazka, who lives near Torrey Pines Beach, about 17 miles (27 km) north of San Diego, would be the first to respond. But would the victims — illegal immigrants from Mexico who pay $4,000 each to get to American shores — accept his help? "They've just spent their life savings to get to the free world," he says. "They're scared people who are desperate and may try to avoid being saved."
To most, Torrey Pines evokes an image of Southern California splendor, an endless beach dwarfed by sea cliffs. But its seclusion has also made it the preferred landing spot for human smugglers, who often pack two dozen illegal immigrants onto fishing boats and hustle them into the country across dangerous nighttime seas. Since last July, four unmanned boats believed to have been piloted by smugglers have washed up onshore, with another intercepted nearby. All have been long, narrow panga-style fishing boats with outboard Yamaha motors. Food wrappers and life jackets littered the interiors. (See pictures of San Diego's high seas border patrol.)
The landings are part of a recent spike in illegal immigration by sea to the San Diego area. In the past five months, federal agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have intercepted 14 boats and made 122 arrests. This year they are on pace to double their record arrest total for 2008. On March 19, a fishing boat was intercepted 33 miles (53 km) off the coast; 21 illegal immigrants were aboard, including a pregnant woman. The jump in sea crossings is mostly due to a clampdown at the land border between Tijuana and San Diego, which has become almost impassable thanks to an increase in border-patrol agents, a National Guard presence, a refortified fence and ubiquitous cameras. "It's virtually impossible to cross," says David Kyle, associate professor at the University of California at Davis and an adviser to the U.N. on human smuggling. The tightened border has left smugglers three alternatives, he says: try to bribe a border-patrol agent, cross east in the treacherous desert or go west into the sea.
Three years ago, a trip north in a rickety boat ran about $900 a head, says Juan Munoz-Torres, spokesman for the CBP agency. Now the spike in demand has jacked up the price to $4,000 or $5,000. For smugglers, the economic incentive is obvious. "[They] can make in a night what they can't make honestly in a year," says Myron Ackerman, a fisherman with a quarter-century on San Diego waters. (See pictures of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.)
The Federal Government has stepped up enforcement dramatically since 2006 through a task force led by the air-and-marine branch of the region's CBP agency. Agents patrol the waters in boats and aircraft at all hours and coordinate intelligence and operations with the Coast Guard, border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At 4:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday, Keley Hill piloted a 39-ft. (12 m) Midnight Express powerboat near the border. The boat sloshed in the 4-ft. (1.2 m) chop, running lights out to avoid detection. Supervisory agent Mark White stood on the bow, peering through night-vision goggles that revealed an empty sea clear out to Coronado island, 8 miles (13 km) away. Hill, director of the CBP's marine-interdiction unit in San Diego, busied himself scanning the green squiggles on the radar screen and radioed to agents in helicopters hovering above the coastline. "They're the bird dogs," Hill says of the choppers. "We're the hunters."
There's not much hunt in it, though. If the agents sight a smuggler's boat, it's game over — the feds' boats are faster, their drivers better trained and their guns bigger, Hill explains. Typically the smugglers just surrender, as their cell phones and BlackBerrys fly overboard. "The first thing we'll see are little black things going 'splash, splash, splash,'" he says. Should boats escape notice on the water, overnight lookouts now stand watch at Torrey Pines Beach. "It's cat and mouse," Hill says. "We watch them. They watch us."