H-CENTRAL COAST

Nov 16, 2012 6:43 PM by Cameron Polom, KSBY News

Drug wars hit Central Coast waters with no signs of letting up

The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Department of Homeland Security are analyzing evidence found in a panga boat they seized Wednesday near San Miguel Island, off the Santa Barbara County coast.

Two-thousand pounds of marijuana were seized. Panga boats are the newest tool for drug smugglers and they are almost impossible to stop.

They are low, open fishing boats that are popular in mexico. Drug smugglers are putting high-speed motors on them and moving drugs up the coast of California.

"They have unlimited resources, unlimited funds and it presents an ongoing challenge," says David Wales of U.S. Homeland Security.

"It's a boat that sits very low on the water, there are two very powerful motors on the back of it, it's filled with fuel and marijuana," says Commander Aaron Nix of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office.

"They're willing to go to just about any means, and that can lead to violence," says Wales.

In the last few years, Homeland Security and customs agents have seen a massive spike in drug smuggling on the Pacific Ocean.

"We've had about a four-fold increase in the seizure amounts from last year to this year."

Homeland Security says more than one hundred thousand pounds of marijuana have already been seized this year. The street value: $500 million.

Agents say the pangas usually take off from northern Baja, Mexico with multi-person crews. Most of the landings are on beaches along San Diego and Los Angeles counties.

"I kind of liken it to a balloon affect, as the pressure is applied else where they will move to avoid that pressure," says Wales.

Law enforcement pressure is now squeezing the drug trade north to the Central Coast.

"They're going to try and make landfall on a beach, and put their load on the beach where they have a waiting off load crew," says Wales.

With their low profiles, the pangas are hard to spot in open water. But as investigators find more boats on the beaches and make more arrests, they are learning how these types of operations work and are fighting back.

"Because of some of the successes we've had in interdicting these smuggling operations, they have been changing their tactics, and they have switched over to having pleasure boats rendezvous with these vessels and they will actually transfer loads at sea," says Wales.

"This is a billion dollar industry," says Wales, "and the people that operate these cartels live quite a lavish life style."

One of the main enforcers in the fight against smuggling is a ship called the Black Fin.

"She's a multi-mission maritime asset, so that means she does search and rescue, we do law enforcement and a variety of other tactical duties," says Lt. Tony Gregg.

Gregg says it's one of the most advanced boats in the Coast Guard.

"She's built for speed, she's also built for torque, so she's very capable at towing, she's very capable at topping out and chasing," says Gregg.

And she has to be. Panga boats are known to travel at speeds of over 40 miles per hour.

"Nobody wants to be caught," says Gregg. "And it's usually a high-speed chase, typically."

The Black Fin and her crew have a solid record against the boats. They've busted eight panga boats filled with marijuana and one with cocaine. For that they are awarded special commendations that are displayed on the side of the ship.

"The one there on the left is a cocaine bust, and then you can see the marijuana leaves there with a red X through them, each one of those represents a successful case that Black Fin has prosecuted," says Gregg.

Homeland Security and the Coast Guard co-ordinate the busts like military missions: air support uses advanced night vision cameras to spot smugglers under the cover of darkness.

Some battles are won, but the cartels might be winning the war, successfully landing at least one shipment a week on U.S. shores. That adds up to millions of dollars worth of drugs every month.

"As the coast guard gets a new weapon in this fight, a new tool or a new policy or new tactic to prosecute this mission, certainly the smugglers are adapting to that," says Gregg.

The Black Fin was actually the boat that boarded and detained the smugglers from Wednesday's bust, so it looks like they'll be adding one more commendation to the side of that boat.

» There are multiple updates to this story. Please click here to get the latest information.

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