By Alexandra Ulmer and Kristina Cooke
SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 20 (Reuters) - 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.
This account of the sinking of the Salty Lady is based on interviews with Eberardo and two other migrants aboard and some of their family members and lawyers, as well as eyewitnesses who saw the ship break apart. The migrants and their families all spoke on condition that they be identified only by their first names.
Eberardo "was our angel," said Edgar, a 31-year-old Mexican farmer who was aboard.
For Eberardo, his actions were also a chance at redemption.
MAKING A TERRIBLE MISTAKE
When Eberardo was 6, he said, his father's shot-up body was found on a countryside path near their farm in Mexico. The family suspected he was the victim of a land dispute, but Eberardo's mother cautioned her five children that it was too risky to investigate, Eberardo said.
She started waking Eberardo up at 3 a.m. to help on the farm by fetching water and herding cattle, he remembers. Exhausted, he'd fall asleep at school, only to spend the evenings selling cheese and cream to neighbors until 10 p.m. Eberardo left school at 13, working odd jobs pumping gasoline or manufacturing doors.
When his older brother suggested he come to the United States, Eberardo, then 19, leapt at the chance. He crossed the border into Texas without being detected, and settled in the Midwest, where he worked in factories and fell in love with a Mexican woman, who was also in the United States illegally and had a son from a previous relationship.
Eberardo and his wife, Maria, had two daughters, both U.S. citizens, and he devoted himself to them. He proudly recounts changing most of the diapers. Photos on his Facebook page show his daughters in frilly dresses and high ponytails.
He earned around $2,000 a month working in an aluminum foundry. But carrying the molds, which weigh up to 180 pounds, took its toll; when, in pain, he went to the doctor around Christmas 2014, he was told he had three herniated discs, he said.
The injury left him barely able to walk, Eberardo and Maria said, let alone work a factory job. He took on some $12,000 in debt.
Then, Eberardo said, he got an offer: Deliver a kilogram of heroin to a grocery store parking lot. He says he hesitated. But his contact kept mentioning it, he said, and eventually the lure of being able to chip away at debts with the $5,000 on offer was too strong.
The heroin client, however, was an undercover law enforcement officer, court records show. On Sept. 18, 2018, Eberardo was arrested and charged with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
In court records explaining how he should be sentenced, the government acknowledged that Eberardo's childhood had been affected by his father's death.
"But this crime was not borne of desperation, nor was it preordained by his upbringing," the government's sentencing memo reads. "Ultimately, the defendant made a series of poor choices as a grown man — choices that were his to make, just as the consequences of those choices are his to bear."
Eberardo pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released early, on April 7, 2021, due to good conduct, records show. He was immediately picked up by immigration officers and, two days later, sent back to Mexico.
"IS IT 1OO% SAFE?"
Within a month, Eberardo said, he found a smuggler in Tijuana who said he could cross him over to the United States by sea.
"Is it 100% safe?'" Eberardo asked him.
"Nothing is 100%, only death," the smuggler replied. "But it's 99% certain that you'll make it."
Eberardo said he paid a Mexican smuggler $200 and promised to pay the rest of the $17,000 fee upon arrival in the United States. The smuggling ring told him it would pretend the cabin cruiser was a tourist boat, and advised Eberardo to dress the part. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, and bought a white baseball cap.
Around 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, Eberardo was shuttled out on a small boat to the cabin cruiser. It was his first time at sea. All the migrants were Mexican, bar one Guatemalan national, which is reflective of the demographics of recent sea crossings, said Aaron Heitke, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol in San Diego.
Heitke said smugglers are using a range of watercraft, including local wooden fishing boats known as pangas, pleasure crafts and even jet skis.
Hurtado's boat was bigger than most but wasn't in good shape, according to another border official. "It wasn't the most seaworthy vessel out there," said Michael Montgomery, the head of CBP's air and marine operations in San Diego.
Sea arrests in the San Diego sector had been climbing gradually since 2015. But in fiscal year 2020, they jumped by more than 90% to 1,273, which agents and advocates say may be due to tighter enforcement of the land border and pandemic-related border closures. Sea arrests in fiscal year 2021, which ends September 30, have already surpassed 2020's number.
President Joe Biden has kept in place a policy enacted under former President Donald Trump at the start of the coronavirus pandemic that allows border patrol agents to immediately expel migrants they encounter. The policy has blocked most migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Overall border arrests have risen to their highest monthly levels in two decades, although those numbers are inflated by repeat crossers who were previously expelled.
With the land border in San Diego "pretty operationally secure," Montgomery said, "the path of least resistance now would be the water."
Aboard the Salty Lady, Hurtado instructed the migrants in English to crouch as he set off for the United States, according to the three migrants who spoke with Reuters. Hurtado didn't speak Spanish, the migrants said, so Eberardo said he helped translate, although his own English is shaky.
After a while, Eberardo's back started to hurt from crouching. He sat down on what he would later discover was the gasoline tank. From there, he had a better view of Hurtado, who he said was resting his head on the wheel.
"Wake up," Eberardo said. Hurtado appeared to indicate that he didn't want to be touched, and some of the migrants said they were fearful of angering him. Hurtado kept falling asleep, though, so Eberardo said he would nudge the wheel to rouse him. He must have done so around seven times, said Edgar.
The Pacific was getting rough. Hurtado wasn't able to control the boat any longer, according to two of the migrants on board. Then, in an apparent attempt to steady the ship, "he dropped the anchor," Edgar said. "He came back in and said, 'Sorry, guys.'"
Eberardo said after a few hours of the boat rocking violently in place, Hurtado tried to lift the anchor but struggled. Eberardo stepped in and cut the anchor line with a saw, he and Edgar recounted.
But when Hurtado tried to accelerate, the motor died. The boat began to lurch, and migrants worried it was about to capsize.
Julio said he and his cousin, who was also on board, began shouting that they should get help before it was too late. "Who should we call?" Julio asked. Someone suggested contacting immigration authorities. Another passenger argued against it, afraid of being detained and deported.
The discussion was moot. Nobody had cell phone reception.
PANIC AS BOAT SINKS
As the boat began to sink, panicked migrants thronged one of the cabin's two doors.
Eberardo worried the boat was about to tip over.
"Come to the other side so you can be counterweights," he said he yelled.
But it was too late; the ship turned on its side, submerging the door. Eberardo hauled his way up to the other side of the boat, which was still above water.
As he was about to jump into the Pacific, he turned back and lowered his hand into the cabin to see if he could help anyone still trapped. A young man grabbed it, and Eberardo said he yanked him to safety. Edgar, the farmer on board, confirmed that the young man described the rescue to the group when they were in custody later. The young man couldn't be reached for comment.
After he jumped off the ship, Eberardo clung on to a red float, but it started to drag him out to sea. He kicked his legs and tried to stay afloat, the white baseball hat he'd bought in Tijuana lost in the surf. Hikers on the oceanfront trail watched in shock. Someone called emergency services just before 10 a.m. The U.S. Coast Guard and state and local agencies rushed to the scene.
Out in the waves, Eberardo's back started to give in. "There came a moment where I couldn't swim anymore," he said.
A rescuer on a jet ski speeded over. Shivering and hyperventilating, Eberardo hauled himself on.
He said he was dropped off on a rescue boat and was asked to try to revive an unconscious man while rescuers tried to fish out other people.
Eberardo started pumping the man's chest, but had no response. He pressed on, but eventually checked his pulse. Nothing.
Crouched over the man's body, Eberardo began to cry.
"He looked my age. I started to think that maybe he was a father, like me," Eberardo said.
Eberardo is unsure who the man was. Three people died that day: two women and a 29-year-old man named Victor Perez. Contacted through a lawyer, Perez's widow declined to comment.
Eberardo was interviewed by border authorities and then held for around two months in a San Diego prison as a material witness in the case against the captain. He was ordered to be released on July 2 after his lawyer argued that his depositions as a material witness were over and there was no reason to keep holding him.
Edgar and Julio, detained in the same prison as material witnesses before being sent back to Mexico in June, credited Eberardo for their survival. "When I was in the cell, I started to think: If Eberardo hadn't come, what would have happened to us?" Edgar said.
On July 7, Eberardo was sent back to Mexico. He is renting a room by himself and looking for a factory job, but has so far been unsuccessful and is dependent on money Maria sends him. His family is hesitant about joining him, both he and Maria say, especially as his eldest daughter aspires to study medicine in the United States.
"I can't stop feeling guilty," Eberardo said of his decision to get involved in the drug business. "I destroyed my life with the mistake I made." (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Kristina Cooke; editing by Kari Howard)