Using small boats to move drugs is a growing trend

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.

In May, an abandoned 35-foot-long boat laden with about 1,800 pounds of marijuana was found in the same area. No arrests were made. A department spokesman said at the time that it was the first seizure of its kind in the county.

“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.”

The Coast Guard has confiscated more than 50 tons of marijuana on Southern California beaches since last July. One seizure was made close to San Luis Obispo County.

Two months ago, a panga and the marijuana it was carrying were seized and arrests were made near Refugio State Beach west of Goleta in Santa Barbara County. That same month a similar bust was made off the Los Angeles coast.

The boats, constructed of wood and fiberglass, range in length from 15 to 50 feet. Equipped with at least two outboard motors and hundreds of gallons of fuel, the boats travel as far out as 80 miles before heading to shore.

“It’s pretty rare that one of these boats would be found in California for any other purpose,” Beuer said. “It’s a Mexican fishing boat used for immigrant and drug smuggling.”

These drug-smuggling operations often include human trafficking, said Sgt. Mark Williams, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

“It varies from boat to boat, but a lot of times they are packed full of people and drugs,” Williams said. “People are paying to get shipped to America.”

Once the boats come ashore, the drugs are loaded on to 18-wheelers or other vehicles and transported south or east.

“It is low-grade marijuana, not up to California standards,” Beuer said. “Compared to what is sold here, there is no comparison.”

The farther the marijuana travels, the more it gains in value, he said.

What would sell for $500 a pound here could sell for $2,000 a pound on the East Coast.

Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s offices have partnered with state and federal agencies including the California Maritime Agency Coordination Group to streamline enforcement.

Anyone who spots a panga, on or offshore, should contact authorities immediately.

“There is a considerable amount of violence involved in this,” Beuer said. “There is a huge profit at stake, and the person on the boat charged with making sure the drugs arrive knows that they could end up a statistic if they don’t get it there. The violence is extremely real — even here — not just in Mexico.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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