Below him, a pair of pangas appeared. They were heading northeast from offshore fishing grounds toward Ensenada, heavy with bundled nets. The wind was blowing chop across a moderate swell. Even loaded with gear and, presumably, catch, they zipped along at 27 knots, bounding and slamming into waves as they beat their way to port. This kind of speed can be decisive. When winds subside and seas go calm, a panga crowded with migrants and pushed by the 200-horsepower Yamaha outboards common to Baja’s fleets can cruise at more than 30 knots, slipping past the authorities and quickly hitting drop-off points.
Enforcement difficulties are compounded by gaps in patrol schedules. The Super King Air is almost all-seeing, and when paired with an Interceptor vessel it can direct agents to suspicious boats. But C.B.P. staff is too small to patrol round the clock. Moreover, C.B.P. aircraft fly from a prominent airfield, and Interceptor vessels dock at piers visible from San Diego and terrain nearby. It is an article of faith among agents that smugglers deploy spotters who relay the agents’ movements. “We are confident that they are watching us take off, or know when we are flying,” says Air Interdiction Agent Troy Fuller, a pilot who formerly flew Marine Corps helicopters. Chad Irick, a supervisory agent and former Army Apache pilot, believes the smugglers have even more information. “They definitely know our shifts, they know what our response times are and they have spotters out,” he says.
Agents also say they have seen indications of real-time smugglers’ communications. Sometimes they are told a vessel in Mexico is approaching and rush from their docks to intercept it, only to have the boat turn around as an enforcement vessel roars out of the harbor. The phenomenon is common enough to have a shorthand expression: T.B.S., for “turned back south.” Leonard said agents suspect smugglers pass alerts on marine-band radio. “The smugglers get on Channel 16 when they know a plane is in the air and whistle or say, ‘la mosca,’” he said, Spanish for “the fly.”
During the years of anti-immigration populism that accompanied Trumpism — with its racist tropes, calls to build more border walls and news reports of migrants or undocumented residents suffering in the immigration crackdown — agents say they have at times felt social disapproval. Some say they hesitate to wear uniforms when commuting or do not tell neighbors what they do for work. Others describe being confronted when ordering food in restaurants or by passers-by at docks, including by a small crowd that called agents “Nazis” as they detained a suspected smuggler at the waterfront Pepper Park in 2018. The unease is also informed by the 2017 shooting of an Air and Marine Operations agent in a C.B.P. uniform outside a Florida grocery store by an 18-year-old man who said he hated cops; the agent, shot five times, survived.
Even as public tensions have accompanied enforcement, Southern California has experienced a rise in boat-smuggling traffic and migrant drownings, all but ensuring those tensions will continue. Agents know they don’t detect all the smugglers, much less catch them. Sometimes abandoned boats are found at sunrise, tied to a harbor dock or banging in the surf; other times, Border Patrol agents are called to collect life preservers, swim noodles, boogie boards or swim fins on beaches, discarded by migrants who made it. Occasionally smugglers game out the gaps in C.B.P. shifts and dare daylight dashes. Soon after Leonard’s evening flight, which was quiet, a panga made a fast passage to Point Loma, dropped passengers in the water and spun around. A Black Hawk helicopter gave chase. But no Interceptor vessel was on the water, and the man easily sped out of U.S. territory — a successful run, at least for him. The migrants he ferried were detained ashore.
The full extent of traffic remains unknowable. Agents note that enforcement data principally reflects events in which a vessel is recovered or people detained; it offers little insight into undetected passages. Shifts in data over time, they say, may be tied to some degree to shifts in enforcement capabilities and efforts, like the arrival of the Super King Air aircraft. Mark Levan, a supervisory agent who has worked the waters since 2002, says there is no solid information on how many boats and migrants get through, but the activity is rising. “We’re catching more than we ever caught, but it’s not slowing down,” he says. Levan is nearing retirement. His government career reaches back to service in the Navy in the 1980s, including alongside Marines in Beirut. He speaks of Baja’s human-smuggling rackets in the knowing tone of someone who has tried for years to counter networks that not only defied crackdowns but thrived.
The smugglers, he says, follow a rational risk assessment. Pangas can carry people or drugs. But penalties for ferrying migrants are lesser than for trafficking drugs, so panga crews prefer to smuggle people. “Boat drivers get a quarter of the time if they’re moving bodies, as opposed to dope,” he says, referring to prison sentences. The fees migrants are willing to pay have also climbed, Levan says, making smuggling an understandable temptation. Prices vary, but Levan says each migrant now pays $10,000 or more for the passage, up from $6,000 a few years ago and far more than when Levan started in his job. (These rates were confirmed by lawyers representing migrants, including Ruth Philips, who says fees run in the $12,000 range, about twice what her clients in land-border-crossing cases often pay to be smuggled in vehicles.)