Coast Guard, law enforcement boosting efforts to target smugglers off California coast

Crewmembers of U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sea Otter tow a panga boat that was seized in a smuggling interdiction into San Diego Bay, on Dec. 3, 2013.


By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: July 19, 2018

SANTA ANA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — The unusual call came in about 4:30 a.m.: a small, speeding vessel was heading toward a nearby beach. For two sheriff’s deputies on patrol aboard a fire boat in Newport Harbor, a placid early morning shift was about to take an intriguing turn.

Common sense suggested the mystery boat zipping toward the Newport Beach coastline last month wasn’t being piloted by a fisherman or recreational boaters out for a predawn spin.

It first had been spotted by a U.S. Navy ship 100 miles or so south, off the U.S.-Mexican border; a Coast Guard vessel later updated the coordinates as it moved north. Evidence also suggested this was a “panga,” a simple, rugged and nimble vessel designed decades ago for fishermen, but which in recent years has become popular among smugglers at sea.

For the two Orange County sheriff’s deputies, Jacob Betham and Mark Freeman, their goal soon became more urgent and clear: Gather information, intercept the panga and be ready to deal with who and what they found aboard.

“They gave us a heading, with that we got a location on the beach based on speed and their direction,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Paul Ketcham, who was watch commander in Newport Beach the morning of June 11, directing the two deputies.

So Freeman and Betham sped southward. Fog and a rough swell made the journey treacherous as they aimed for an intercept point about 15 nautical miles off the shore of Crystal Cove State Beach, a state-operated beach and wilderness area close to Pacific Coast Highway — and the site of previous illicit panga landings and human smuggling operations.

Freeman piloted the patrol boat, while he and Betham prepared for the unknown encounter.

Within 45 minutes, the deputies were at the spot where they believed the boat would soon arrive.

There were two choices; either the boat would yield or there would be a vessel pursuit which would require other law enforcement resources. The U.S. Coast Guard is at the helm of coordination.

“If they do yield to us, it’s six to nine people on board,” said Betham. “Then it’s do they have weapons or do they not? Do we have enough handcuffs and life vests to secure them to the boat? It’s just a nautical nightmare.”

The two deputies waited offshore. The boat didn’t show up.

At daybreak, the fog lifted. On the nearby sands of Crystal Cove, the empty panga finally came into clear sight, its pilot — and whoever else was aboard — having vanished into the coastal hills.

While the Harbor Patrol often works calls that include assisting vessels in distress, enforcing harbor navigation codes, responding to boat fires and search and rescue calls, deputies also patrol the water near the coast to seek emerging trends.

In carrying out that effort, they are aided by a busy command center that’s the first of its kind in the nation. Formed out of an office at the Long Beach Harbor in 2011, the Maritime Coordination Center now is charged with aiding dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in a joint effort to keep the waters off California safe from smugglers and other criminals.

In cases like the June 11 incursion by the panga, information is pushed out to all of the MCC’s 80 partners — those with resources at the ready, in this case the Harbor Patrol, respond. Staff at the MCC facilitate what response is available, what resources are needed and works to avoid duplication

“Just like any other call, our alertness level is based on the intelligence we have going out onto the ocean,” Betham said, recalling how the MCC’s coordination helped pinpoint the panga’s movements that morning. “It’s different than on land, there’s no place to hide on a boat. Bullets can go through a boat a lot easier.”

He added: “We talked about how we engage them and about tactical considerations and possible threat levels.”

The MCC’s area of watch is divided into three sectors; San Diego, Long Beach/Los Angeles and San Francisco. In part because of its success, the center is now a model for similar endeavors nationwide.

Between 2012 to 2016, agencies intercepted 376 boat landing efforts and seized 182,200 pounds of marijuana within the Long Beach/Los Angeles sector that includes Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

In roughly the same time period, law enforcement agencies also stopped 658 boats carrying 3,247 migrants. In each of those cases migrants were apprehended and no drugs were found on board.

So far in 2018, there have been 21 known vessel landings along the coast between San Diego to just south of San Francisco, according to data from the MCC. In most cases, drugs were seized or migrants were apprehended.

The center also has reported a 75 percent decrease in attempted panga landings in Orange County in 2016 compared to 2010 – the year before MCC was established — due to increased enforcement and coordinated efforts.

“We make sure all the partners are aware of incidents and can find response quicker,” said Bridgett Lewis, director of the MCC and security operations for the Port of Long Beach. “It’s a coordination between military, state and local assets that come together.”

The effort at greater coordination got off the ground due in part to the work of Laura Farinella, who is now the chief of police in Laguna Beach. In 2011, she had command over the Port of Long Beach as deputy chief of the support bureau and was in charge of the Port Police Division where Long Beach Police Officers worked to provide a homeland security function.

“There was no communication then,” she said. “We had a panga land in Long Beach and communicated with Customs. They said they knew about it but no one ever communicated with us. 9/11 changed this. We realized that we have to think larger. We can no longer work in silos in our own area of law enforcement. Criminals don’t know borders. We now think statewide, nationwide and worldwide.”

Since that time, the center has grown from a desk and a telephone to a room full of hundreds of monitors and highly sophisticated equipment and cameras.

Each month affiliated agencies, including local law enforcement and fire departments, Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard hold meetings to discuss techniques on monitoring illicit maritime activities. This includes discussions on current trends, maritime intelligence and case coordination.

“It’s a time where officials from the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and state and local agencies can share ideas and cooperation,” Lewis said. “There’s no turf war. We’re all the same on the water. It’s also an opportunity to see how each other works.”

Matt Rice, assistant special agent for Homeland Security Investigations, said the network of investigators that make up the Border Enforcement Security Task Force are likely the nation’s best especially because of the coordinated effort among the agencies.

As greater pressure to enforce border security has focused on land crossings, officials have seen an increase in smugglers coming by sea.

“Some are coming to look for a better life, sometimes it’s human trafficking and sex trade,” Farinella said. “We have to consider every scenario. It could be a terrorist. Anytime someone is entering the U.S. unlawfully, there is always a concern about what’s behind it.”

While panga and small vessel landings have been the main focus, law enforcement is also aware of other efforts for people to come ashore illegally. Pangas meet up with pleasure crafts and fishing vessels on the open sea. When that happens, it’s harder to detect.

Still, within the last few months, calls from concerned boaters in Dana Point and Newport harbors about illegally docked boats have alerted Harbor Patrol. Officials found evidence of smuggling activities occurred, including life vests, food and water that could only have been purchased in Mexico.

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The prevalence of incidents off the south Orange County coast has prompted Farinella to create a marine unit at the Laguna Beach Police Department. The group of officers train monthly with deputies from the Harbor Patrol on ways to identify threats.

“I wanted to make sure we were part of MCC communications in the instance we needed to respond to a panga landing event, who to contact, and the training to do it correctly,” she said. “The team consists of 12 police officers who had an interest in maritime law enforcement. The team attends monthly MCC meetings.”

Near-miss apprehensions, like the one June 11, serve as lessons for future efforts to stop illegal landings that typically serve as transport for human smuggling and drug and weapon smuggling .

“This is not necessarily what we see every day,” said Edward Owens, deputy special agent in charge of special investigations for the Department of Homeland Security U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “A major amount of boats are interdicted at sea or when they make landfall. Sometimes, if they see Coast Guard helicopters, they’ll turn around and go back south.”

During a subsequent panga landing, on June 19 in nearly the same spot at Crystal Cove, law enforcement coordination paid off.

In that case, the Laguna Beach Police Department were tipped off by a passerby who saw a suspicious-looking boat near the shore. Information was sent to the MCC which dispatched a call to all law enforcement.

Police from Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, Crystal Cove State Park rangers and Border Patrol responded. A sheriff’s helicopter was launched and the Laguna Beach maritime team responded with drones and offroad vehicles. Nearby El Morro Elementary School was locked down while at least 20 officers patrolled the area.

In the end, four men were found hiding in the bushes at a nearby campground.

“They were wet and showed signs of having been out at sea for a while,” said Farinella. “It was really kind of sad.”

Water bottles, life vests, gasoline and GPS devices were recovered aftre both recent panga landings at Crystal Cove.

That evidence will be scoured by investigators from Homeland Security, who also look for fingerprints and any other forensic evidence.

“We’ll exploit that to the nth degree,” Owens said. “We make every effort to pull out all the stops.”

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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