Panga case sheds light on drug-smuggling operations, prosecutors say

There is enough evidence to move to a trial in a case against two men arrested earlier this month while allegedly waiting for a drug-smuggling panga boat to land near Piedras Blancas, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.

A third man also arrested that night pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Wednesday.

Prosecutors allege the cases shed light on how the elusive and ever-increasing maritime drug-smuggling operations work.

Juan Ramos, 21, Jose Humberto Beltran, 25, and Cesar Theojary Chavezortegon, 26, were arrested March 9 in a dirt parking lot off Highway 1 near Piedras Blancas, the same day a panga boat carrying some 1,300 pounds of marijuana was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in the waters off the San Diego coast.

Investigators linked the two incidents based on a GPS device allegedly found in the skiff containing coordinates within a mile of where the three men were found by police. Coordinates bearing the location of two previous local panga boat landings were also on the device, according to testimony presented at a preliminary hearing Wednesday.

Though they were originally arrested on suspicion of a variety of crimes including transporting marijuana, selling marijuana and being in possession of burglary tools, the District Attorney’s Office on March 12 charged each with a single felony count of conspiracy. Each have pleaded not guilty.

James Moxley, a narcotics detective with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, testified that just before midnight on March 9, a deputy stopped in a dirt lot on the western side of the highway and questioned Ramos, who was sitting inside a parked two-door 2014 Chevrolet Camaro.

When asked why he was in the lot, Moxley testified, Ramos told the deputy he was from San Francisco and driving to Los Angeles to visit a cousin. Moxley said Ramos could not give the deputy the name of his cousin and would not allow the deputy to call the cousin to verify his story.

After Ramos stepped out of the Camaro, the deputy allegedly saw bolt cutters and a hacksaw in the vehicle, and later found a bag of clothes, a two-way radio, four cell phones, a small amount of marijuana and about $1,000 in cash when searching the vehicle.

Moxley testified that investigators later found a lock on a metal gate leading to the beach about 30 yards south of the car had been cut.

While Ramos was detained, deputies allegedly noticed Beltran and Chavezortegon walk up to the location from vegetation separating the parking lot from the coastline.

Chavezortegon was later found to be in possession of two cell phones and $130 in cash and told deputies he had crossed the border from Mexico earlier that day. Beltran was allegedly found to be carrying about $1,300 in cash.

It was unclear based on testimony where the three are from.

While the three were being arrested on suspicion of trafficking narcotics, a white van bearing a logo on its side of a business later determined to be fake crept up to the parking lot heading north. When deputies noticed the van, it sped off and deputies were unable to stop it, Moxley said.

Moxley said Ramos was also found in possession of a newly purchased Masterlock. When asked by Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt why that was significant, Moxley said drug smugglers are thought to find garages, sheds or barns in private rural areas near the highway, cut off their locks and unload cargo inside, then place the locks on the outside to hide the activity after they leave.

In the days following the arrests, Moxley said the Sheriff’s Office discovered a link to the panga boat in San Diego.

He said the Coast Guard discovered a panga boat crossing into U.S. waters from Mexico carrying three men and about 50 bales of marijuana. Once pursued by a Coast Guard cutter, the men allegedly began throwing the bales overboard.

In an effort to stop the panga, the cutter fired rounds from its onboard machine gun at the skiff’s outboard motors, Moxley testified the Coast Guard told him. The cutter stopped shooting when one of the panga boat’s passengers threw himself onto the motors.

The boat soon became disabled, and the Coast Guard arrested the three men.

Since May 2012, 15 panga boats believed to be carrying both drugs and people as cargo have been found abandoned on San Luis Obispo County shores.

Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Duffy ruled that prosecutors presented enough evidence to continue the prosecution of all three men from the local March 9 incident.

According to Devitt, each faces a maximum of four years in state prison or county jail but could also be sentenced to simple probation, if convicted.

All three are due back in court April 8.