The sun wasn’t even up yet when a citizen saw something suspicious on a North Coast beach Thursday, Sept. 6.
The unidentified person made a call to authorities, and by the end of the day 20 suspects were in custody and 43 bales of marijuana weighing 3,000-plus pounds with a street value of $4.5 million had been confiscated, county sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said.
The witness saw a boat on a beach. Men were carrying large packages to a recreational vehicle, a white truck and a black sedan parked on Highway 1. While the beach is remote, only accessible by traversing a poison-oak choked trail of about a half-mile, it’s easily visible from a bluff just north of the beach along the highway.
By 6:30 a.m., sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officers were speeding to the area near San Carpoforo Creek Road, about 12 miles north of Hearst Castle.
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They stopped the RV on Highway 1 near San Geronimo Road along the Cayucos Bluffs north of Cayucos. Its 12 suspects were taken into custody, as were two from the sedan. The location where the sedan was stopped was not available.
Others were arrested after a CHP plane and helicopter, a State Parks canine unit, state Department of Fish and Game rangers, sheriff’s canine units, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, a Coast Guard helicopter and boat, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration investigators converged on the scene.
The Sheriff’s Office had about two dozen people respond, Cipolla said, including Sheriff Ian Parkinson for part of the day.
It’s believed there were three people manning the 30-foot-long boat known as a panga, a type of Central American fishing boat. It was powered by two outboard motors.
All those arrested were men. Their names, ages and nationalities were not available. All were taken to County Jail for the night, Cipolla said, and were moved to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles Friday. The center is part of the federal Bureau of Prisons. The Department of Homeland Security will handle the case.
The panga boat was less than three miles north of where an abandoned panga boat was discovered May 24. That boat, estimated at 35 feet long, carried about 1,800 pounds of marijuana. No arrests were made. A department spokesman said at the time that it was the first seizure of the kind in the county.
Smuggling drugs ashore in small, sturdy panga boats is a growing trend along the coastline of San Luis Obispo and nearby counties.
The boats, typically laden with marijuana — and sometimes illegal immigrants— make the passage from Mexico and slip ashore in remote areas at night.
As law enforcement has cracked down along the Southern California coast, an increasing number of boats have been found.
Thursday’s discovery of a panga boat just north of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse is one of several locally this year.
“It is a shotgun approach up and down the coast,” said Gregg Beuer, a narcotics detective with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office. “They are going to try all different methods, and sooner than later law enforcement will shut down one way of doing it. It’s a never-ending mouse game.”
Reporter AnnMarie Cornejo contributed to this report.