Drug Smuggling Try Off Catalina Island Highlights New Trend

Drug smugglers are changing their tactics to avoid detection by using second team of smugglers on sailboats, officials say

By Jason Kandel
|  Friday, Aug 24, 2012  |  Updated 9:43 AM PDT
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This is a photo of federal agents returning to Oceanside, Calif., harbor on Aug. 22, 2012, after seizing a Mexican fishing boat and four of the seven men apprehended in a maritime drug smuggling attempt off Catalina Island.

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Federal agents this week seized marijuana estimated to be worth $1 million and arrested seven men in what authorities say is the latest trend off the California coast - using sailboats as cover for smuggling operations.

U.S. customs agents discovered the suspected smuggling attempt after boarding a sailboat they had seen flashing its lights in the waters south of Catalina Island on Wednesday.

Once aboard, the agents discovered three people and a loaded shotgun, a .40 caliber pistol, and night vision equipment, officials said.

“We are beginning to see this as a more common tactic: smugglers attempting to move contraband from open hull panga boats to recreational vessels, such as this sailboat,” said Keley Hill, director of Marine Operations for Customs and Border Patrol in San Diego. “The smugglers think that when the recreational vessel moves in to shore, it will blend in with legitimate boating traffic off of the Southern California coastline and make it much more difficult for us to detect illegal activity.”

Suspecting the people aboard were about to rendezvous with another boat to attempt a drug swap, agents called in a helicopter to scan the water for other boats nearby.

Helicopter pilots spotted a Mexican fishing boat about five miles away. During a chase, someone on board the boat could be seen dumping bales overboard, officials said.

After a brief chase, the boat was intercepted.

Agents recovered 130 packages of marijuana, weighing about 2,357 pounds, with an estimated street value of more than $1 million.

Authorities arrested three U.S. citizens who were found on the sailboat and four Mexican nationals from the fishing boat.

It's one in a string of cases in recent years -- a nearly daily occurrence -- in which boats are being found further north along the California coast ferrying both drugs and human cargo to evade a beefed-up law enforcement presence along the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said.

So far this fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2011 to Aug. 22, 2012, authorities have recorded more than 180 such smuggling cases in Southern California, up 16 percent from the same period in 2011, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Authorities have seized more than 110,000 pounds of narcotics this year, a more than four-fold increase over all of fiscal year 2011, Kice added.

Officials have noted an upward trend for the last four years. In 2008, officials saw 45 such cases mostly in San Diego. Three years later, authorities saw 40 cases occurring along the Los Angeles coastal areas.

“The surge in maritime smuggling activity here in Southern California represents both a security and a public safety threat,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for Homeland Security in Los Angeles.

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