Panga boat found at Montaña de Oro; 14 people arrested

clambert@thetribunenews.comMay 29, 2013 

The smell of fuel wafted out of a 35-foot-long panga boat that was found on a secluded beach in Montaña de Oro State Park on Wednesday. Clothing, water bottles, a duffel bag, carabiners and other items were strewn up a steep sandy trail leading to the road nearby.

It was the fifth such panga boat discovered on local beaches in the last year. San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies recovered a cache of what is believed to be marijuana and arrested 14 people.

The gray fishing craft with twin outboard motors was discovered after deputies noticed suspicious activity around the park early Wednesday morning.

The suspects were expected to be interviewed and booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail on suspicion of transporting marijuana for sale, possession of marijuana for sale and conspiracy, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said.

Their names and ages were not immediately available, though Cipolla said most are Mexican citizens. They will remain in jail and be prosecuted locally, he said.

Local authorities said they located “a large quantity of packages that we believe is marijuana from the panga boat,” he said.

The panga boat is the first such vessel found in San Luis Obispo County this year and the fifth since May 2012, when evidence of recent drug-smuggling efforts first appeared along the local coastline.

Similar boats over the past few years have increasingly been used to transport people and drugs from Mexico to the United States. The boats have been stopped and confiscated from San Diego to San Luis Obispo counties, though the number discovered locally has been far fewer than in other areas of the state.

But as law enforcement in Southern California became more successful at intercepting the boats, the smugglers started heading farther out to sea — and pushing farther north.

The four boats found last year were all discovered north of Piedras Blancas. The first, found in May 2012, was abandoned and contained about 1,800 pounds of marijuana.

In September, authorities arrested 20 people and found 43 bales of marijuana after someone spotted a boat and men carrying packages on a remote North Coast beach. Another boat found in October appeared to have been used to transport marijuana, though no drugs were found.

The most recent boat — before Wednesday’s discovery — was found in late November among 34 floating fuel containers.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson requested federal assistance, and the department received a federal grant about six months ago that it has used to increase coastal patrols in search of panga boats, Cipolla said.

Patrols pay off

Just after midnight early Wednesday morning, sheriff’s deputies conducting those special coastal patrols noticed some suspicious vehicles in Los Osos heading into the state park, Cipolla said. He declined to comment on what triggered the deputies’ suspicion.

With assistance from the sheriff’s office special operations unit, deputies started conducting surveillance of the vehicles and saw them dropping people off in Montaña de Oro.

About 6:30 a.m., the deputies saw four to five vehicles being loaded up with people, and then started conducting traffic stops on Los Osos Valley Road.

It’s unknown how many people were on the panga boat when it came onshore near a beach north of Hazard Canyon. Cipolla said officials believe people were meeting the panga boat to help unload its cargo.

A steep path leading down to the beach was strewn with debris and evidence, he said, including packaging materials, a duffel bag, water bottles, and a folding knife. A Tribune photographer said he also noticed carabiners and clothing.

“It looks like they were taking the packages out of the panga boat and dividing it up into smaller packages to hike up a fairly steep trail,” Cipolla said.

Other agencies assisting sheriff’s deputies included CHP, State Parks, and agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Gallery: Click here to see more photos of the panga boat and the scene at Montaña de Oro »

Tribune photographer David Middlecamp contributed to this report.

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