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Suspected migrant boat shatters off San Diego, killing four

Wreckage of the boat washed up on the beach

Four people have died and around 20 people have been injured after a boat got into trouble off San Diego in an alleged smuggling operation.

The overcrowded 40-foot (12-m) cruise ship crashed on a reef near Point Loma on Sunday morning, knocking around 30 people in the water, officials said.

A major rescue operation was launched to help the wounded ashore and recover seven people from the sea.

Officials said the captain of the boat was in custody on suspicion of smuggling.

“Every indication from our point of view is that this was a contraband vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States,” said Jeff Stephenson, border guard.

“We have not confirmed the nationality of those involved, but our agents are with many of them in the hospital and the man we believe to be the operator … The investigation is still ongoing.”

Rescuers were alerted to the incident near the Cabrillo National Monument at around 10:30 a.m. local time (5:30 p.m. GMT).

Rick Romero, of the San Diego Fire Rescue Lifeguard, said initial reports indicated three or four people needed help, but they quickly realized that “the situation was going to be worse with more people.”

“Once we got to the scene the boat was pretty much broken,” he said. “The conditions were pretty rough: five to six feet of surf, windy, cold.”

Suspected migrant boat shatters off San Diego, killing four

Authorities believe the boat was used to smuggle migrants into the United States

He said people were in the water and taken out to sea by the tearing current, while people on land needed CPR and treatment for hypothermia and other injuries.

In a statement, the US Coast Guard said 29 people had been counted, including 24 alive, four people had died and one was in critical condition.

Footage from the scene showed large pieces of debris on the beach. Jet skis, three other rescue boats and specialized rescue equipment, including cranes, were brought in to assist with the rescue.

At the same press conference, Mr Stephenson said it was not yet known where the boat had come from, but many contraband boats were coming from the Mexican coast of Baja.

“The smugglers, they don’t care about the people they exploit. All they care about is their profit,” he said. “These people are just commodities. So you can see in the way they treat them, inadequate safety equipment, really poorly equipped ships and giving them the minimum.”

Mr Stephenson said there had been a 92% increase in the number of apprehensions related to smuggling by sea in 2020, compared to the previous year.

The United States’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced on Friday that it was stepping up its patrols on the coast over the weekend in an attempt to deter smugglers.

Border patrol agents arrested 21 people – 15 men and 6 women – found on a small open-top boat, a panga, off San Diego early Thursday. They were Mexican nationals without legal status to enter the United States, CBP said. Two suspected smugglers who were on board the boat will face federal charges.

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