Rescuers with capsize victims
Rescuers at Blacks Beach with victims of the capsized smuggling boats in March. Courtesy OnScene.TV

With more than six months left in the fiscal year, 2023 is already the deadliest year for maritime smuggling since at least 2019.

A smuggling attempt in March — which turned into tragedy after eight people drowned and two boats capsized near Blacks Beach in La Jolla — tipped the death toll well over that seen in previous years. 

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Authorities have confirmed 13 deaths resulting from smuggling attempts along the Southern California coast so far in fiscal year 2023, which runs from October through September. 

That’s more than double the five deaths in the previous fiscal year, according to the Southern California Regional Coordinating Mechanism, or ReCom, a group of local, state and federal agencies. Five people also died in 2021, four in 2020 and three in 2019.

The Blacks Beach tragedy follows several years of dramatic increases in maritime smuggling along the Southern California coast — of both contraband and migrants. 

One official called the tragedy one of the worst in San Diego, and possibly California, maritime smuggling history.

Immigration advocates say policies that restrict access to the U.S. asylum system, like Title 42, have made some migrants more desperate in their attempts to reach the U.S., and thus have led to more deaths.   

“Nobody wakes up and just wants to cross in the most dangerous way possible, but they’re put into a position where they don’t feel like they have a choice to save their lives,” Hollie Webb, a supervising attorney with Al Otro Lado, a binational immigrant rights law firm, said in December. 

Title 42, a pandemic-era policy set to end in May, allows immigration officials to quickly turn away migrants at the border without considering their asylum claims. Advocates including Webb said the policy has forced thousands of hopeful migrants to wait in border cities like Tijuana, where they’ve faced kidnapping, extortion, rape and other violent attacks. 

Yet maritime smuggling makes up just a fraction of the deaths among migrants attempting to cross from Mexico into the U.S. In fiscal year 2022, more than 890 migrants died in their attempts to enter the U.S. along the southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

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