Drug smugglers continue to use the ocean more as borders tighten
Ventura County Star, Calif.
The amount of marijuana seized from smuggling boats has dramatically increased this year in Southern California, authorities say — a trend that's been reflected in Ventura County, Calif.
The Coast Guard says 50 tons of pot have been seized from Southern California smuggling boats this fiscal year. That's four times the total for the entire previous fiscal year.
Among the latest discoveries was a marijuana-filled panga — a small fishing vessel — that landed Thursday north of Santa Barbara between Refugio and El Capitan beaches on the Gaviota Coast. Onboard were 6,620 pounds of marijuana. Law enforcement agents were waiting for it and arrested 13 people.
It landed less than a day after the Coast Guard seized 8,500 pounds of marijuana on a panga at sea about 160 miles west of Los Angeles.
The incidents were the latest "in what has turned out to be a very busy time for us," said David Wales, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security in Camarillo, whose office is in charge of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
With the recent trend, "This is the highest amount of maritime seizures that we have ever had here," said Petty Officer Adam Eggers, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.
The two boats involved in last week's seizures — like most of the other panga boats smuggling drugs here — probably came from northern Mexico, Wales said.
Such incidents were almost unheard of a few years ago, Eggers said.
But since then, U.S. officials have stepped up patrols along the land borders and increased surveillance of air traffic from other countries, he said. This has made smuggling drugs through land and air routes much harder, and smugglers have been forced out to sea.
Panga boats normally are used for fishing in Mexico and other countries, Eggers said. The boats have become increasingly popular with drug smugglers because they are relatively small, providing a much smaller "profile" and making them harder to spot. Smugglers often put multiple engines on the boats to make them fast and provide assurance for longer journeys. If one engine breaks down, the boat can use others.
The boat that landed north of Santa Barbara on Thursday, for example, had three engines, according to the DHS.
The Gaviota Coast is an especially desirable place for smugglers to land because of its remoteness yet proximity to freeways and other major transportation routes, Wales said.
More than a dozen panga boats have been seized in Southern California this year, Wales said. More than 90 people have been arrested in connection with those smuggling operations, he said.
Finding a panga boat off the California coast is a good sign it is involved in smuggling, most likely drugs, Eggers said.
"If we see one of these boats, we will stop it," Eggers said.
Wales and other officials are sure there are drug-laden panga boats that never get stopped. The question is how many.
"The vulnerabilities that we face in this area are a concern to us," Wales said.
Wales encourages people to report any boat they see that might be involved in smuggling or other criminal activity but warns against directly interfering with the boat.
"The last thing we want is having anyone get hurt," he said. Instead, people should call 866-347-2423.