Pubdate: Tue, 04 Dec 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Author: Steve Chawkins


Crewman's death after Coast Guard craft was rammed by a panga boat 
comes amid rise in use of sea routes.

The small Coast Guard inflatable vessel was 20 yards from the panga, 
an open fishing boat that law enforcement officers say has become the 
craft of choice to ferry untold numbers of marijuana bales and 
undocumented immigrants from Mexico to Southern California.

Spotted earlier by a Coast Guard cutter, the panga was running 
without lights, a standard practice in the illicit trade, according 
to investigators.

The four men on the boat dispatched from the cutter Halibut 
approached it cautiously, about 200 yards from the shore of Santa 
Cruz Island, off the Santa Barbara coast. In the darkness, they 
turned on their blue flashing lights and shouted, in English and 
Spanish: "Stop! Police! Put your hands up!" according to court 
documents filed Monday.

In response, the two men aboard the panga throttled their engines and 
headed straight at the small Coast Guard boat, ignoring shots fired 
by a crew member, provoking a collision that left a chief petty 
officer dead and his colleague injured. Then the two men kept going.

One of two men thrown out of the inflatable, Chief Petty Officer 
Terrell Horne III of Redondo Beach, died of a head injury caused by a 
propeller, according to the affidavit, which was filed in connection 
with the murder case against two suspects detained as they tried to 
flee to Mexico.

Officials say the tragedy underscores the dangers posed by smugglers 
who have foregone well-policed land routes in favor of the sea. 
Although more than 500 maritime smuggling incidents have been logged 
off the Southern California coast since 2010, this was the first 
violent death, authorities said.

"Most of our interdictions off of California can only be described as 
benign," Coast Guard spokesman Adam Eggers said. "There may be an 
attempt to evade, there may be a short pursuit, but we haven't had 
anything like this."

The men on the panga, Jose Mejia Leyva and Manuel Beltran Higuera, 
both Mexican nationals, were charged in Horne's death in U.S. 
District Court. Authorities believe they had been supplying gasoline 
to other smuggling craft operating off the California coast.

According to the affidavit, military aircraft followed their 30-foot 
craft as it made its way toward Mexico. With the two men futilely 
trying to restart their sputtering engine 20 miles north of the 
border, another Coast Guard vessel overtook them. Crew members 
demanded their surrender at gunpoint. When the men kept trying to 
start their engine, the Coast Guard crew doused them with pepper spray.

Encounters with seaborne smuggling have nearly doubled since 2010, 
with the steepest increases found along the more secluded, less 
patrolled beaches of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, according to 
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In Santa Barbara County, the surge has alarmed local authorities. In 
an April letter to Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), Sheriff Bill 
Brown said the county experienced 16 "panga incidents" since the 
previous July, including the beaching of a four-engine, 45-foot 
"super-panga" that could easily have outpaced his department's sole vessel.

"It's a direct byproduct of increased pressure at the border and 
increased maritime enforcement to the south of us," Brown said in an 
interview Monday. "They're going further out to sea and they're 
coming further north."

Capps said she is asking federal agencies for additional enforcement 
funds in Santa Barbara.

The greatest number of coastal smuggling cases still occurs in San 
Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. But intensive interagency 
efforts based in San Diego and Long Beach have forced some smugglers 
farther up the coast, officials said.

"It's not so much that efforts are being stepped up as that agencies 
are pooling knowledge and experience and expertise," Eggers said. 
"The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is that there's a ton of law 
enforcement here."

Upgraded technology, such as infrared radar and enhanced video, is 
being shared among agencies, he said, along with "actionable intelligence."

But smugglers have powerful incentives to take the risk. Dozens of 
people, paying an average of $6,000 apiece, can cram into each panga.

Police say marijuana bales hauled by a typical panga can sell for 
millions. There's a huge expanse of sea - the Channel Islands 
National Marine Sanctuary is nearly 1,500 square miles - and major 
roads, including U.S. 101, run right by potential landing areas.

Boat pilots often try to outrun law enforcement and some high-speed 
chases have ended with U.S. officers shooting out gasoline tanks or 
performing swerving maneuvers to stop the pangas, said a federal law 
enforcement officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"They aggressively try to get away, but not turn their boat on 
another boat like they did the other night," the officer said.

On occasion, the rugged terrain of Channel Islands National Park has 
served as a staging area for smugglers.

In 2010, authorities seized 2,448 pounds of marijuana hidden in brush 
in a canyon on Santa Rosa Island, and arrested four people hiding nearby.

In 2011, 15 suspected illegal immigrants were stranded for three days 
on Santa Cruz Island, abandoned by the panga pilot who had 
transported them. They were rescued after calling 911 and hailing a boater.

Sunday's incident at Santa Cruz Island occurred in Smugglers Cove, 
where tequila traders from Mexico once stashed their goods before the 
trip ashore, Brown said.

"To a certain extent, we have history repeating itself," he said.

In June, six people were arrested as they unloaded 1.5 tons of 
marijuana from their panga at Santa Barbara County's El Capitan State 
Beach. The Gaviota coast has been a landing spot for smugglers dating 
back to the Spanish colonial era.

Arraignment for the two men charged in Horne's death has been set for Dec. 21.

In another panga case Monday, a federal judge took note of the 
weekend's deadly encounter as he handed a sentence of nearly four 
years to a Mexican man whose marijuana-laden panga got stuck in rocks 
near Deer Creek Canyon in Malibu.

U.S. District Judge John F. Walter said the tragedy made it 
impossible to view the many sea smuggling cases on his docket as 
"lighthearted" capers.

"It has taken on now a much more serious tone in light of the events 
this weekend," Walter said, adding: "Something needs to be done about 
this rash of panga boats."

The defendant, Antonio Robles-Garcia, was arrested in January. His 
attorney, Dale Rubin, said he had signed on because was desperate to 
get to the U.S. and work.
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