In recent months, U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents have found empty life jackets or bales of unloaded marijuana along Sunset Cliffs.
Since October 2007, more than 16 vessels the size of fishing boats have been found along the coast from as far south as Imperial Beach and as far north as Torrey Pines State Beach, said ICE spokesperson Lauren Mack.
In March, about 15 people were discovered on a small vessel spotted by a cruise ship about 15 miles west of Mission Bay. Coastguard officials picked up the mostly Mexican nationals at sea, Mack said.
In another case, smugglers abandoned about 360 pounds of marijuana found onboard a small vessel in late April along Sunset Cliffs, Mack said. Incidents like these have occurred with increasing frequency, she said.
There has been an "uptick" in human trafficking, according to officials. The agencies, under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), continue to investigate the influx of smuggling.
"We try to be as proactive as we can "¦ it's very, very difficult," Mack said. "They're obviously trying to outsmart us and go where we're not looking if they can."
Compared with the 10 vessels discovered in the previous year, she confirmed there has been an increase but could not confirm whether the latest cases are part of a continuing upward trend over recent years.
The boats can launch from just about anywhere along the coast but probably launch from the Mexican communities of Rosarito and Ensenada, Mack said.
Agents often find the boats abandoned along the coast after being spotted by eyewitnesses, officials said.
The boats either disintegrate under the crushing waves or are seized by federal officials and auctioned to cover cost of storage, Mack said.
Though most boats are abandoned along the coast, some smugglers also try to blend in with other vessels entering San Diego Bay. Though Coastguard agents are permitted to board any vessel for any reason, they said officers use discretion and only board when necessary or if there is a safety hazard.
Mack said most of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border by sea come from Mexico but still others come from different parts of the world.
And they pay top dollar to do so, she said.
"Human smuggling has become very lucrative and very organized compared to previous decades," she said.
People from Mexico, China, South America and Eastern Europe "” among other origins "” will pay anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 to migrate illegally to the U.S., she said.
ICE investigates what the Coastguard and Border Patrol agents report. Together, they work to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.
The three agencies, in cooperation with other agencies, make up the larger task force comprised of CPB air and marine units and the Coastguard, patrolling about 4,000 square miles of water.
Federal officials said they have their work cut out for them and cite the recent increase in marine smuggling to tighter border enforcement on land.
"Its like a balloon," said CBP spokesman Vince Bond. "If you squeeze it with enforcement on one end it goes off in another direction."
It used to be that a person could cross the U.S./Mexico border with an oral declaration of U.S. citizenship.
As of the end of January a person may cross with a government-issued identification and birth certificate, a passport or other valid documentation, Bond said.
That turned the spigot off for illegal entry by those who would try to sound like a U.S. citizen, Bond said.
Between October 2006 to October 2007, CPB stopped about 49,000 "inadmissible" people from entering the country without proper documents. From October 2007 to about March 2008, an additional 22,000 people have been stopped at the border.
He added that officials see the discovery of tunnel systems connecting the U.S. and Mexico as a "measure of desperation" by smugglers trying to capitalize on the demand for cheap labor and drugs in the U.S.
And while CBP keeps tabs by land, their boats and helicopters help the Coastguard patrol the open water off the coast as part of an ever-widening net of government agencies.
Since 2003, the various federal and state agencies have consolidated resources and combined different branches of agencies to handle the smuggling problem.
Partly as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agencies under the Department of Homeland Security have been given more latitude and funding from the Office of the National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
The ONDCP has traditionally battled drug smuggling but now has focused on human trafficking and human smuggling in general since it is widely accepted that smuggling may feed terrorist organizations, said U.S. Coastguard Capt. Charles Strangfeld.
"We're really trying to take on all threats "” all hazards approach in the maritimes," he said.
While Strangfeld said stopping the boats from landing on U.S. shores poses a significant challenge, he said the various agencies have stopped about 129 migrants in connection with the smuggling in recent months. He said that's a small fraction of what the land border patrol agencies see in one day.
Coastguard, ICE and CBP officials would not comment on the exact number of boats, helicopter and other marine and air units. Because investigations are ongoing, ICE officials could not release details of specific cases, but report about eight criminal arrests so far this year as they try to dismantle the organized smuggling operations.