“Stop! Stop! You are going to kill us!,” shouted terrified to the smugglers several undocumented immigrants who were on board of one barge in the middle of the sea. It was 2:30 in the morning and a Border Patrol monitoring boat (CBP) turned on a powerful light and, using a loudspeaker, ordered them to stop.
The smugglers ignored the order and increased the speed to the unstable 26-feet-long fishing boat.
The result was fatal: out of a group of 18, a crash between the barge and the authorities’ vessel left one dead and four wounded.
La Opinión presents a special series with the survivors’ stories of a tragedy off the coasts of Southern California.
The immigrants could not believe that they had found them. The smugglers had just told them that they were less than 30 minutes away from San Diego. They had already been traveling for almost seven hours in an enraged sea.
It was around 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, just this year, when the immigrants, guided by two human traffickers, set sail from Ensenada, Mexico.
The deadly accident illustrates the increasing use of sea routes to try to cross the border between Mexico and the United States through California, something that is continually gaining ground. However, just as the constant monitoring by land in the border areas, the authorities have redoubled efforts to monitor the coasts near the south border.
All of the immigrants aboard the vessel were Mexican: Jacobo Castellanos, Domingo Sanchez, Red Ramon, Cristián Roman, Samuel de la Cruz, Oscar Sanchez, Alberto Marín, Luis Ayala, Diego Hernandez, Edy Israel Ruiz Alvarez, Hector Lopez, Aldo Flores Villarreal, Luis Fernando Lopez, Nabor Rojas and Raymundo Gracia. Two brothers who were also with the group could not be identified.
Graciela Lopez Franco was also part of the group. She was taken unconscious to a hospital by helicopter where she was pronounced dead.
They had met just hours before climbing into the barge. “We built like a brotherhood. We talked about our goals of a better life for our families,” said Aldo Flores Villarreal, an immigrant from Puebla. “We came with a lot of faith. We were very happy,” added Hector Lopez, from Jalisco.
“I was the last one to climb. I was scared,” said Edy Israel Ruiz Alvarez, an immigrant from Jalisco as well.
We all were “constantly praying,” they said. Some cried, others prayed in silence, said Flores Villarreal. He could not avoid the tears.
They saw the patrol from the Office of Customs and Border Protection while they were sailing through calmer waters. “You could already spot the lights of San Diego from afar,” said Villarreal.
“They ran over us”
After the immigration officials ordered them to stop and did not get an answer, they launched flares in order to force the smugglers to stop. They were shooting into the air afterwards. They also recount shootings to the back section of the barge.
They all agree that their hearts beat rapidly when, suddenly, they listened to a frightening noise.
It came from the Border Patrol boat that was coming towards them at full speed.
By instinct, they bent the body and bowed their heads when the boat “ran over us on one side. It hit my back,” says Hector Lopez. I thought I was dying and I asked God to take care of us,” he says.
After the impact, the barge where they were traveling began to sink. Some were sent flying from the barge; others were thrown to the water. Luckily, they were wearing life jackets. But that did not prevent them to panic.
“I knew to swim but many did not and any time I tried to stay afloat, their slaps sank me. There was a moment I thought I was going to drown. When I was submerged in the ocean, I thought I saw my youngest son, Fernando, smiling at me. I do not know how I did it but I got strength and swam towards the Borders Patrol boat, says Aldo Flores.
“We saw death closely, “says Hector Lopez. Some thought that they would not survive when the Border Patrol boat approached to them and they began to climb. “It was like being born again,” says Aldo Flores.
But the joy of being alive and out of danger, lasted seconds when they realized that the only woman in the group of 18 immigrants, Graciela Lopez Franco, was not among them.
Authorities: They did not want to stop
Jackie Wasiluck, spokesman from CBP, told the media at the moment of the tragedy that their agents, along with those of the Navy and Air Agency, discovered the boat loaded with 20 suspicious people who have entered the country illegal. They made the discovering near Encinitas, a city 22 miles to the north of San Diego.
The agents ordered the crew to stop and when they did not comply with the order, they shot warning shots.
After that, they said that the immigrants’ barge hit the CBP’s which made the barge to sink. They assure that, while rescuing the 20 immigrants from the water, they tried to revive Graciela Lopez Franco, after they found her unconscious. But the efforts were not enough to save her life.
Four of the 17 immigrants were injured and were also taken to a hospital. But as soon as they were treated, they were taken into custody with the rest of the group.
Both smugglers, Jose Piña and Salvador Sanchez, the boat operators, were charged with human traffic. They were found guilty at the beginning of November.
Approximate route used to take the immigrants from Ensenada, Mexico to the coast near Encinitas, California. (Google Maps)
They do not give up hope
The immigrants who managed to stay in the country as protected witnesses, explores all the legal options to turn the tragedy into profit, along with their immigration lawyer, Alex Galvez.
Galvez said that the immigrants do not rule out a class action for damages against the federal authorities. They hope to obtain a U Visa or political asylum.
The U Visa is granted to crime victims (and to their close relatives) that have undergone a physical or mental abuse and that, in addition, they are willing help law enforcement agencies in the investigation and prosecution of a criminal activity.
* First issue of a special four-part series