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SAN FRANCISCO - As the 40-foot cabin cruiser lurched for 12 hours on the Pacific on its dead-of-night journey to California from Tijuana, a Mexican migrant named Eberardo tried to keep the panicked passengers' spirits up.
"Think of God and what you most love: a child, your mother," Eberardo, 36, who was trying to get back to his family in the Midwest after being deported to Mexico, remembers saying. "Let that give you strength."
Finally, the craggy California coastline grew closer.
"We are going to make it," Eberardo told the 31 other passengers, all but one of them Mexican migrants like him who had paid a smuggler for the risky journey on that day in early May.
Then, as it was nearing San Diego's popular hiking area of Point Loma, the boat hit something – rocks or a strong wave.
"Water is getting in!" somebody shouted.
Julio, a 25-year-old Mexican warehouse worker, told Reuters he tried to make it up to the deck, but he couldn't get through the crush of other passengers. He said he and another man tried to break open a window, as aggressive waves threw them from one side of the room to the other.
Soon, the water was up to Julio's neck. Two women nearby began to sink.
"I could see the anguish in their eyes," Julio said. He too felt himself sinking, but an image of his 3-year-old daughter came to him and he thought: No, I have to survive.
The shipwreck, which killed three people, provided a deadly example of an increasing trend on the coast of California: More migrants are crossing by sea to the United States as the land border has become harder to cross, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It reports that arrests at sea in the San Diego area have more than doubled from fiscal year 2019 to reach 1,626 as of mid-August.
The 2021 fiscal year has also surpassed other recent years for migrant deaths in the Pacific in the San Diego area. Aside from the people who died in the May shipwreck, the 2021 count also includes a man who was found dead in a boat in Carlsbad and a man found in the surf near Wipeout Beach in San Diego on May 20, after smugglers told passengers to jump in the water and swim to shore.
Two migrants on board the Salty Lady, the boat that capsized with Eberardo aboard, say he saved lives by keeping a close watch on the boat's captain, 39-year-old U.S. citizen Antonio Hurtado, who they say was acting erratically throughout the trip.
Hurtado's lawyer and relatives didn't respond to requests for comment. Hurtado has been charged with human smuggling, including smuggling resulting in death, and assaulting a Border Patrol agent after the shipwreck while agents were trying to place leg shackles on him. He has pleaded not guilty and is in prison awaiting trial. In 2018, Hurtado was sentenced to 60 days in custody for possession of a controlled substance, court records show.