More than 200 bales of marijuana were found with panga boat

No arrests have been made; officers seized ‘a substantial part,’ if not all, of the load

ktanner@thetribunenews.comDecember 26, 2013 

An abandoned panga boat was discovered Monday on the beach north of the Piedras Blancas Light Station near San Simeon. Members of the Sheriff’s Dive Team and North Coast Ocean Rescue Team convened Tuesday to relaunch the panga at high tide.

COURTESY PHOTO

Authorities recovered 204 bales of marijuana totaling 3,570 pounds from a panga boat found Monday abandoned on the beach north of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse and San Simeon, a federal official said.

The Department of Homeland Security has seized the boat and the investigation is continuing, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. No arrests have been made.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Stuart MacDonald said Thursday, “If it was not the whole load, it was a substantial part of it. It looked to me to be about all the vessel would carry.”

An anonymous call reporting the panga’s location on the beach at Arroyo de la Cruz came in late Monday afternoon. A large contingent of ICE investigators, sheriff’s deputies, State Parks rangers and CHP officers went to the scene as dusk fell.

Hoping to catch the alleged smugglers, the law enforcers set up a perimeter before going in to the boat’s location. But the boat’s crew apparently had disappeared in the remote area, which includes rolling ranchland, State Parks property and the light station.

Panga crews normally put their boats ashore after nightfall. While investigators haven’t determined why this panga landed in daylight, some possible reasons are being considered.

“I don’t know what their reason was for coming onshore at that time,” MacDonald said. “Obviously, it was still light at the time the call came in. … It did wind up getting foggy, so maybe they were trying to get to shore before the fog did. Or maybe they were having fuel issues” or engine problems.

The bales had been offloaded onto the beach. The smugglers then fled, perhaps realizing they had been spotted.

“I think it’s safe to say the shoreside logistics were not in place,” MacDonald said. “There appears to have been no vehicle to load the drugs into.”

On Tuesday, members of the Sheriff’s Dive Team, North Coast Ocean Rescue Team and U.S. Coast Guard convened to relaunch the panga at high tide and take it to federal officials in Morro Bay.

Team member Richard Stacy said the boat itself may have been worth about $10,000, and he estimated each of the two 225-HP Yamaha motors had a value of about $20,000.

At least 10 panga boats have been recovered from San Luis Obispo County shores since May 2012, when a panga with 1,800 pounds of marijuana was found beached just north of Piedras Blancas.

Pangas are used as open-top fishing boats in Central America. Over the past few years, high-speed pangas increasingly have been used to transport people and drugs from Mexico to the United States. 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 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. Most of the boats found locally have landed along the North Coast, from San Simeon to an area south of Ragged Point.

The scenic but remote North Coast shoreline provides landing sites that can't be seen from the highway, such as the Arroyo de la Cruz beach. Many of those spots allegedly were used by smugglers in other areas, especially during such periods as Prohibition and the mission-building years of the 1800s.

Searching for pangas is painstaking, time-consuming work. Sheriff Ian Parkinson asked for federal assistance about a year ago, and the department received a federal grant that it has used to increase coastal patrols in search of panga boats.

However, that funding doesn’t begin to cover the expenses of patrolling the county’s long coastline, much of it in remote areas that are difficult to access, Parkinson said last month. So he’s pushing for more money to help stem the tide.

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