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Despite Rescue, Migrant Dies in Attempt to Swim Around Border Fence

border fence
Sunset at the San Diego border fence (Tony Webster / CC BY 2.0)

Published Nov 1, 2021 2:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

On October 29, one migrant died while attempting to swim around the beachfront border barrier between Tijuana and San Diego, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. A U.S. Coast Guard boat crew rescued 13 more from the water and handed them over to CBP's custody.

On October 29, at about 2340 hours, U.S. Border Patrol agents received a report of a group of about 70 people attempting to swim across the international boundary from Tijuana into the U.S. at Border Field State Park. The fence at the site extends out about 300 feet into the water, beyond the surf zone, and it is one of the most closely-monitored locations along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

An agent in the area reported several people in the water, and CBP sent backup. A responding agent came across an unresponsive woman who was believed to be from the same group of swimmers.  The Border Patrol agent performed CPR on the victim and called for emergency medical service help, including San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) firefighters and lifeguards. EMS arrived on scene and provided additional medical aid. The effort was not successful, and about 0030 hours, the unresponsive woman was pronounced deceased. The San Diego Medical Examiner arrived on scene and took custody of the remains. 

U.S. Border Patrol, CBP Air and Marine Operations, the U.S. Coast Guard, San Diego Fire-Resue and California State Parks continued a search for any other swimmers in distress. The USCG rescued 13 more people from the water and handed them over to Border Patrol agents. In total, CBP captured 36 Mexican nationals who had made the swim around the border barrier, including 25 men and 11 women. The agency blamed the event on human traffickers.

"This is yet another example of the ruthless tactics smuggling organizations use to bolster their power and profits," said San Diego Sector’s Chief Patrol Agent, Aaron Heitke. "We will work tirelessly to pursue and bring to justice those responsible for this tragedy."

Crossings between Mexico and the United States have reached record levels this year, driven in part by displaced persons fleeing violence and poverty in Central America and Haiti. In addition to the increase in the number of incidents, the authorities report the smugglers have become more brazen and moved further north along the coast in an effort to avoid detection. In Southern California, CBP has reported a surge in marine crossings, and it has re-established its San Diego boat unit in an attempt to crack down on dangerous human trafficking operations off the coast. 

The heightened levels of smuggling activity - conducted with little regard for safety - is taking a human toll. In May, a small cabin cruiser carrying 33 migrants ran aground at Point Loma, San Diego, resulting in the death of three people and multiple hospitalizations. On May 20, a migrant perished after smugglers in a panga dropped off migrants into the surf. In April, a deceased migrant was found onboard an abandoned panga in Carlsbad, CBP said. 

“Heartless and unscrupulous smugglers continue exposing undocumented individuals, men, women, and children to the grave dangers associated with maritime smuggling, including capsizing, hypothermia, and drowning,” said Brandon Tucker, deputy director of air operations at CBP Air and Marine Operations - San Diego.

Top photo: San Diego border fence (Tony Webster / CC BY 2.0)