Fifteen suspected illegal immigrants who were stranded on a remote California island for three days were being held Monday after what may have been a 300-mile (483-kilometer) journey in a rickety boat — the latest evidence that Mexican smugglers are heading farther north to avoid capture.
Fourteen men and a woman in their 30s and 40s were rescued from the north side of Santa Cruz Island on Sunday — days after a man called 911 to say he and three other men had been dropped off somewhere on an island and were stranded, authorities said.
"It was a unique situation," U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers said. "We normally don't get a phone call from suspected migrants."
The connection was then lost but it prompted an air, sea and land search of the Channel Islands, a sparsely populated archipelago that stretches northwest of Los Angeles County and includes a national park.
No one was found and the Coast Guard issued an alert to private boaters, urging them to contact authorities if anyone from an island asked for assistance.
On Sunday, a boat reported that some people had flagged them down to seek help on Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles (32.19 kilometers)off the coast of Ventura.
A total of 15 people eventually were picked up from the north side of the island, said Yvonne Menard, National Park Service spokeswoman
They had found a stream or spring to provide water but apparently had no food, authorities said.
"Everyone was in pretty good shape once they got some food and water into them," Eggers said.
They were handed over to federal immigration agents. No boat was found, but they may have made a sea trip from Mexico, authorities surmised.
One of the 15 was from Guatemala and the others were from Mexico, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Two were treated at a hospital for minor ankle and wrist injuries while others had bumps, scrapes and bruises, she said.
The immigrants were being interviewed to determine details of their journey and whether some of them actually might be the smugglers, who could face federal charges, Kice said.
In recent years, smugglers have brought boatloads of people and drugs into California aboard small Mexican wooden fishing boats called pangas. At up to $5,000 a person — roughly twice the fee to cross illegally over land — one overnight smuggling trip can generate $100,000.
Smugglers of human cargo and marijuana are turning to the sea because of increased interdiction on land, said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported 110 seizures of watercraft and related equipment in Southern California from October 2009 through September 2010, up from 49 seizures a year earlier.
"It's been growing over time," Arnold said. "We have two or three of these events a week, and those are the ones we know about."
In April 2010, authorities seized about 4,000 pounds (1,815 kilograms) of marijuana and detained three Mexican nationals after their motorboat ran aground in a remote cove on Santa Catalina Island, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) off the Southern California coast.
"We've had a couple as far as Santa Barbara County," Arnold said of smuggling boats.
The Coast Guard's Eggers said smugglers may mistakenly believe that going farther north is safe.
"Our assumption is they just don't think we patrol for it up here, which is not the case," Eggers said.
A dangerous journey
Smuggling trips are dangerous at any time, authorities said, because the outboard motor-driven pangas often are rickety, overcrowded, lack safety gear, and the pilots have no formal training. Navigation is often nothing more than a cell phone and a handheld GPS device, Arnold said.
The boats, which usually head west as much as 100 miles (160 kilometers) in Mexican waters to escape patrols before even beginning their run north, have occasionally begun leaking or encountered other problems that have left them adrift or forced them to seek the nearest shore.
"Who knows how many they have sunk or something else?" Arnold said. "We may never know that."
Even an intended landing site on the mainland is dangerous to the human cargo, he added. Smugglers are only concerned about getting the job over quickly so they can leave undetected, and immigrants may have to struggle through 5-foot (1.52-meter)-high waves, Arnold said.
"They'll just pull up to a beach somewhere, in the surf and say 'Everybody get out,'" he said.
In February, two smugglers were sentenced to five years in prison each for leading a boat packed with illegal immigrants into rough surf in San Diego last year, killing two passengers. More than 20 people were crammed into the 26-foot boat.
On June 29, 10 suspected illegal immigrants were detained in the Malibu area. Two suffered broken bones while coming ashore.
There were added dangers in stopping in the Channel Islands, however.
The channel between the mainland and the Channel Islands is rough and a wind change can turn the waters from calm to treacherous and choppy in an hour or two, Menard said.
Also, the water temperature is in the low 60s and could bring on hypothermia, Eggers said.
"If that unseaworthy vessel does happen to sink, they're going into cold water ... unprepared," he said.
Information from: Ventura County Star, http://venturacountystar.com