Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining drug smuggling, human smuggling and human trafficking in the San Diego and Orange County area, and how federal and local law enforcement agencies are grappling with the problem. Part 2: Part 3:
Under the affluent veneer of Orange and San Diego counties, thousands risk death, ransom and modern slavery to enter the country without documentation.
Others use muddy border tunnels, rickety fishing boats and secret compartments to haul tons of cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana along the I-5 and other highway corridors, or through beach landings.
Just this week off Dana Point, the
Law enforcement must coordinate dozens of bureaucracies to fight the San Diego area's secretive, violent, multimillion-dollar market in dope and human flesh. From the U.S. Coast Guard to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Chula Vista Police Department and nearly every agency in between, thousands of agents and officers are working to put a dent in Southern California's illegal border commerce.
“We probably get inundated more than anybody else,” said Gary Hill, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant special agent for the San Diego and Imperial County sector. "The sheer volume" is the biggest challenge, he said.
The San Diego sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, which encompasses San Diego County and conducts some operations in Orange County, has seen over the last five years huge increases in the amount of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana seized.
Each week, Border Patrol public relations in San Diego fires off press releases tallying the street value of drugs intercepted at various checkpoints, including San Clemente’s I-5 stop. As agents rack up dope poundage stored in false door panels, gas tanks and diaper bags, they turn it over to the DEA evidence locker.
The Border Patrol also works in concert with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard and dozens of local police departments to create a sprawling mechanism against border crime -- not only drug smuggling, but illegal immigration, human smuggling and human trafficking for forced labor and sex slavery.
Border Patrol arrests in connection with human smuggling operations have dropped drastically in the last few years. The sputtering U.S. economy has radically slowed illegal immigration as Mexican nationals -- who make up about 60 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. -- decide there isn’t as much opportunity in the U.S. as there once was, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
But Border Patrol spokesman Jerry Conlin also credits tougher enforcement for the slowdown. He cited the addition of 1,200 extra agents, new walls and technology for deterring would-be border-crossers. San Diego sector Border Patrol agents’ ranks have swelled from 1,500 in 2005 to nearly 2,700 as of March.
The extra vigilance has produced one side effect, however. It has pushed smugglers to the sea.
Over the last year, the Coast Guard and local sheriff departments, in coordination with the Border Patrol, have , as much as 50 miles off the coasts of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, San Clemente, Dana Point and Camp Pendleton. The Maritime Unified Command based in San Diego, which coordinates and dispatches boats from the Coast Guard and all law enforcement agencies in Orange and San Diego counties, has served as a model for other sectors where various feds and locals could potentially step all over each other.
Human smuggling is a perilous business for the smuggled. Coyotes or members of other criminal organizations that specialize in human smuggling pack people inside car trunks in temperatures that hit three digits, or pack them into semi-trailers in conditions worse than livestock endure, not to mention the overpacked panga fishing boats drifting on the open ocean.
Immigrants regard smugglers as a ticket into the U.S., but some are unwittingly sold into domestic or agricultural slavery, locked in cellars between grueling housecleaning shifts, their passports or other documents seized by their captors. Others are forced into prostitution or held by Hispanic street gangs, mostly in the Inland Empire, to extort money from their families in Mexico or other parts of Latin America.
Because of the San Diego Sector’s unique geography -- a 60-mile, partly mountainous land border with Mexico and more than 114 miles of open coast -- the feds and local police have taken special steps to get a handle on the huge underground economy that is the Southern California border black market.
Check Patch.com over the next two days. will examine San Diego's transnational drug trade, human smuggling and trafficking, and the tools police agencies use in response.