Pubdate: Mon, 30 Jul 2012
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2012 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Author: John Scheibe


Bundles of marijuana were seized Thursday off the Santa Barbara County
coast. The seizure was one of the latest in what federal authorities
say has been a busy year for attempts to stop smugglers.

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.

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

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

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.
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