During the past two years the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office has recovered 12 drug-smuggling panga boats that have landed along the North Coast, yet it does not have a way to safely and quickly remove the boats from the beach.
That’s why it will ask county supervisors Tuesday to spend nearly $500,000 in federal grant funds to buy a new boat and other equipment to beef up the department’s ability to deal with the persistent problem.
The bulk of the money — $342,813 — would be spent to buy a 27-foot Defender Class response boat that will be used primarily to refloat beached panga boats so that they can be taken to Morro Bay for disposal. Other equipment to be purchased with the grant money includes three mobile license plate readers, a thermal imaging camera, sensor kits and night-vision goggles.
“This equipment will aid and enhance the Sheriff’s Office ability to detect and potentially prevent these landings along our coast,” Parkinson said in staff report. “This not only has been a growing problem but more importantly poses a threat to our residents.”
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The $493,013 in purchases will be paid for with a grant from the federal Operation Stonegarden program, which is intended to promote cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to increase border security.
The purchases are necessary because of a recent increase in landings of open-bow fishing boats, commonly called panga boats, to smuggle drugs ashore. Twelve panga boat landings were detected in the county between May 2012 and February 2014, with the most recent occurring Feb. 23.
Eleven of those landings resulted in the recovery of the panga boats, and 62 arrests were made for drug smuggling. Deputies recovered more than 10,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of $8.8 million.
“Almost all of the suspects arrested are from the Los Angeles area, and some are believed to be Los Angeles area gang members,” Parkinson said.
The increase in local panga boat landings is the result of a change of tactics by the smugglers. For the past two years, they have been traveling up to 150 miles out to sea before heading up the coast to isolated areas in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Although the Sheriff’s Office works cooperatively with the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security to deal with the problem, some aspects of responding to panga boat incidents are the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Office.
For example, the Coast Guard is not allowed to remove a boat once it has landed. The new boat will be used specifically to tow beached panga boats to Morro Bay.
“The Sheriff’s Office has several boats; however, none of them are capable of getting in close to shore to assist with towing these panga boats off the beach and out of the surf line,” Parkinson said.
The other equipment will be used to thwart the smuggling after the boats have landed. The mobile license plate readers will used to identify cars from the Los Angeles area that could be in the North Coast area to pick up drugs.
The thermal imager will help deputies find cars and people in open terrain. The sensor kits will alert law enforcement of vehicles entering areas closed to traffic in suspected landing and pickup areas. The night vision goggles will allow deputies to see during times of low light, which is when most panga boats land.