Santa Barbara County officials are trying to get continuous funding for the fight against panga boat maritime smuggling.
Sheriff Bill Brown and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, met with federal and state authorities Monday morning to discuss strategy for stopping the influx of drug- and people-smuggling boats landing on the Central Coast.
There have been 42 landings in Santa Barbara County since 2010, including 20 in 2012, Brown said. The boats used are traditional Mexican fishing boats, typically about 30 feet long, open-bowed and powered by multiple outboard motors.
Capps wrote a letter asking for federal funding last year, and the county got $375,000 for Operation Stonegarden, the collaborative law enforcement effort focused on the country’s borders. She wrote another letter to the congressional Subcommittee on Homeland Security last month asking for $55 million in grant funding for Operation Stonegarden.
“We can’t give our guard down especially given the history of success lately,” Capps said, adding that the panga boat drivers and passengers put themselves at risk with such dangerous conditions, which implies a level of desperation.
Brown said local funding has paid for equipment and overtime for Sheriff's Department employees to work on the task force and panga response effort.
The number of panga landings and interceptions at sea has decreased over the years (only two so far in 2014), but it’s still a threat, Brown said. Law enforcement agencies have seized almost 30,000 pounds of marijuana — worth $71.6 million on the street — and arrested 120 people, he said.
The Central Coast is an attractive location to smugglers since there are more than 100 miles of coastline close to the highway, he said. Boats land on beaches, unload bales of drugs or people into waiting vehicles and “are gone before we know it,” he said.
With more pressure put on Mexican drug cartels, smugglers went from over-the-border efforts to tunneling, having people grow marijuana in the United States and now using boats to get up the California coast, Brown said. They’ve been found as far north as Monterey County, he said.
“As pressure has been put on smuggling in southern areas like San Diego, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, they’ve moved further and further north,” Brown said, adding that the marijuana smuggled in by boat gets distributed nationally.
He wouldn’t discuss specific law enforcement strategy from Monday's meeting, but he said some boats probably make it all the way up the coast without stopping while other ones may stop at “some kind of mothership” to refuel or get supplies. Some of the boats go out to sea as far as 100 miles.
The Santa Cruz Islands have been a stopping point for some boats as well. Most land on beaches under the cover of darkness, so they may get to the islands, wait until nighttime and then head to shore, Brown noted.
In late 2012, a U.S. Coast Guard officer was killed when his vessel was rammed by a panga boat. Two Mexican nationals were convicted of murder in the death of 34-year-old Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III.
Horne and other boarding team members of the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut approached the boat in the Smuggler’s Cove area off Santa Cruz Island. They were thrown into the water when the panga boat operator rammed the inflatable boarding vessel, according to the official report on the incident.
When the panga fled the scene after the collision, the outboard engine propeller hit Horne’s head in the water and he died of his head injuries.