Panga boats running drugs from Mexico are pushing north, landing on SLO County beaches

The first boat showed up abandoned on a remote stretch of the North Coast in May, containing some fuel and about 1,800 pounds of marijuana.

For local law enforcement, the boat’s arrival was a sign that San Luis Obispo County was not immune to drug-smuggling efforts that are a rising problem in Southern California.

While hundreds of similar small, motorized fishing craft known as pangas have been stopped and confiscated from San Diego to Santa Barbara counties, the boats hadn’t been found in San Luis Obispo County.

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.

On May 24, state Fish and Game Warden Ryan Hanson was on patrol, searching for possible abalone poachers along the coastline, when he discovered the first panga boat onshore in San Luis Obispo County. 

The boat was surrounded by footprints. The occupants were nowhere to be found.

Hanson pulled out his rifle and started making calls, said Mark Crossland, a captain with Fish and Game’s law enforcement division.

After that, “everyone’s radar was up higher,” said Nick Franco, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo Coast District of State Parks.

“Certainly there was information that this sort of activity is occurring,” he added. “It certainly is always a surprise when it lands right in front of you, but it’s not shocking.”

Since May, three other boats have been discovered onshore in the county, all north of Piedras Blancas. One contained 43 bales of marijuana. Another appeared to have been used to transport marijuana, though no drugs were found.

The most recent, discovered Tuesday, was found among 34 floating fuel containers.

The trend concerns local law enforcement agencies, which have stepped up efforts to patrol and monitor the North Coast shoreline.

“We’ve had an increased problem,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “We don’t know what’s coming in on these boats.”

He’s worried not just about marijuana entering the area — much of which is likely loaded into vehicles and transported south or east, where it garners more money — but about other drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Teaming up enforcement

A consortium of law enforcement agencies now holds meetings focused on panga boat issues. The group, with the Sheriff’s Office taking the lead, also includes Fish and Game, State Parks, the CHP and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Some agencies, including State Parks and the CHP, have increased training for their officers or asked them to increase patrolling of certain areas.

“The rangers regularly patrol those areas, and now they’re more aware of exactly what to look for,” Franco said. “I don’t want to go into too much detail, but just sort of suspicious activity that’s related to these sorts of drug-running exercises.”

Crossland said Fish and Game wardens are trained to respond to unusual events, such as panga boat interceptions, and make sure that any environmental hazards, such as fuel, are cleaned up. 

They also conduct sea patrols and coordinate with the Coast Guard. For example, in Tuesday’s incident, a smaller Fish and Game skiff towed the panga to a Coast Guard cutter so it could be transported to Morro Bay.

“We’re doing our patrol effort just like we always have been,” Crossland said. “We’re going to be climbing through the brush and going on the cliffs and searching these remote areas because of the nature of our job.”

Parkinson has asked deputies assigned to patrol north of Cayucos to the Monterey County line to check remote areas of the North Coast late at night and in the early hours of the morning.

“Because it’s not heavily populated, traffic is limited, so in some cases any activity tends to stand out,” he said.

That’s what happened last week, when two deputies noticed flashlight beams skittering across an oceanfront meadow at 4:15 a.m. about four miles north of the Piedras Blancas Light Station.

Three of the five people believed to have been on the boat were arrested.

Originating in Mexico

The U.S.-bound panga boats — typically laden with drugs, and sometimes illegal immigrants — are launched from fishing villages on the outskirts of Rosarito Beach, a coastal resort town in Baja California, 20 miles south of the border from San Diego, according to Virginia Kice, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Much of the maritime smuggling activity is tied to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, she said. The cartel controls the smuggling routes, and the smugglers pay a fee to use them.

Over the past three years, the number of smuggling boats intercepted by law enforcement in Southern California has steadily ticked upward, according to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

From Oct. 1, 2009, through Sept. 30, 2010,  a total of 121 boats were intercepted in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. The number includes any kind of event involving a watercraft engaged in smuggling.

By comparison, from Oct. 1, 2011, through Sept. 30, 2012, a total of 210 such events took place in all the counties listed above plus Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties and boats discovered offshore.

While panga boats appear to remain the vessel of choice, some smugglers are beginning to transfer loads to U.S.-owned pleasure crafts such as cabin cruisers. They are also heading farther north to elude detection. 

But immigration officials believe the smugglers may find it difficult to travel farther than San Luis Obispo County — though it’s unknown how many boats may have done so.

“How far they can go is all dependent on how much maritime support they can get,” said Jere Miles, deputy special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo counties. “To get this far north, you’re talking several days on the open ocean in an uncovered fishing boat.”

Ramping up patrols

Miles is organizing a task force that includes his office and the sheriffs in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties so they can plan more aggressive patrols and follow-up investigations. 

He’s also hoping federal funds come through to help finance additional patrols.

Parkinson has also requested federal assistance. He’d like to get a vessel that could be used to respond to incidents in the ocean, and he hopes to get federal reimbursement for some overtime costs involving panga apprehension.

The Sheriff’s Office already has one ICE  agent on its special operations unit but has requested another agent, who is expected to join the task force next year.

 The ICE agents focus on drug offenses and other crimes, such as counterfeiting, that involve immigration issues — and panga boats have been added to that list.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.