Officials call for meeting with Homeland Security on panga smugglers

Congressman Henry Waxman and members of the California Congressional Delegation recently wrote to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to express concern about increased panga boat smuggling activity along the Southern California coast and request a briefing on how the federal government is improving coastal security. 

The smuggling activity turned fatal with the Dec. 2 death of Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, when the panga he and his team were pursuing rammed the Coast Guard boat, knocking him overboard into a propeller off the coast of Port Hueneme. Two Mexican nationals were apprehended off the San Diego coast and charged in Los Angeles with killing the federal officer. 

Maritime smuggling activity in Southern California has steadily increased every year since 2008 when the government began keeping records. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recorded 210 incidents in 2012, up from 121 incidents in 2010. During the past two months alone, there have been 20% more smuggling events than the over same time period the previous year. 

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Malibu’s own experience reflects the bigger picture, with three incidents reported in 2011 and five incidents in 2012. Of the eight known smuggling events, five occurred at Deer Creek – a beach just north of Neptune’s Net, which tends to be favored for contraband drop-offs because of its isolation, proximity to Pacific Coast Highway and stairway up from the beach. 

Additionally, incidents have occurred at Leo Carrillo State Beach, Pirate’s Cove at Point Dume and Latigo Beach. Up to 4,000 pounds of marijuana have been confiscated and up to 10 people have been detained in these busts. 

Pangas are the vessel of choice for Mexican smugglers, Virginia Kice of the ICE said. They’re lightweight and can be equipped with outboard engines that make them faster than many law enforcement boats (but still not quicker than U.S. aircraft). 

“They’re also very inexpensive,” Kice said. “It’s just an open-hull skiff, so the Mexicans abandon them after landing and write off the loss as part of doing business.” 

When the U.S.-Mexico border became more tightly controlled after 9/11, smugglers found more creative ways of getting their primary contraband—illegal immigrants and bales of marijuana—into the country. In the past year or so, Kice noted, marijuana smuggling has become much more prevalent than cases of human trafficking, with over 92,000 pounds of marijuana seized in 2012, four times the amount in 2011. 

The pangas originate from Mexican towns near the U.S. border, Kice said, where they head out to sea and then travel north along the coast in the cover of darkness, running without lights. 

Much of the maritime smuggling activity is tied to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, Kice stated. The cartel controls the smuggling routes, and the smugglers pay a fee to use them. 

“An effort like this involves an infrastructure both north and south of the border,” Kice explained. 

When maritime smuggling first began increasing, most pangas landed in San Diego or Orange Counties. However, once law enforcement started intercepting more boats, smugglers began heading farther north for drop-offs, and are now routinely caught in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. 

Law enforcement agencies now pool their resources and work together to catch the smugglers. The Department of Homeland Security’s Central California Maritime Agency Coordination Group in the Malibu area consists of the California National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, U.S. Coast Guard, DHS (which includes ICE), Homeland Security Investigations, Los Angeles County Fire Department (including lifeguards), California State Parks and LA County Sheri f f ’s Depar tment. The National Guard, for example, has access to high-powered night vision surveillance equipment not readily available to the sheriff ’s department. 

Depending on the outcome of Waxman’s meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, these law enforcement agencies may have the benefit of more federal funding.

“The recent rise in smuggling off of the California coast is troubling,” Congressman Waxman said in a statement. “It is critical that our borders and our coasts are secure from drug and human trafficking and I’m committed to ensuring that federal, state and local officials have sufficient resources to combat this illegal activity.” 

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