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(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

America’s Sea-Born Terrorism Challenge: the Panga Boat

• April 01, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Low-slung speedboats from Mexico are smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of marijuana along the California coast. And we can’t do a thing about it.

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security were roundly eviscerated on Capitol Hill last week, blistered for their surprising failure—“stunning” was the word often used—to devise a reliable metric to gauge the status of border security. Both sides in the battle for immigration reform insist an improved measurement is critical to the passage of any legislative package. High-ranking officials with Homeland Security had no answer; worse yet—at least according to the members of Congress giving them the third degree—they said none was likely in the near future.

No one at the proceeding saw fit to invite the heads of law enforcement agencies along the California coast. Had they done so, they would have heard an earful about the challenges they confront in stemming the tide of panga boats—utilitarian low-slung speedboats that are hard to spot and even harder to catch—dispatched by the Sinaloa drug cartel out of northern Baja Mexico up the California coast.

With increasing frequency—and volume—panga boats laden with marijuana and to a lesser extent, immigrants, are showing up off central California (a few even make it as far north as the Bay Area), where miles of vast, open shoreline defy the abilities of even the most omniscient of law enforcement agencies to patrol.

In a recent one-week period, Homeland Security officials reported seizing $6.7 million worth of marijuana deposited on Santa Barbara County beaches in just two panga deliveries gone awry. That one of those took place on shoreline controlled by Vandenberg Air Force Base—which boasts more security personnel than any other air base in the nation—was cause for some embarrassment in law enforcement circles. If one of the most important Air Force installations in the U.S. strategic arsenal proved so vulnerable to pot smugglers forced to improvise, how safe would we be in the face of real terrorists armed with anthrax, dirty bombs, or anything more formidable than an outboard engine on a zippy boat? That it came only two months after Coast Guard Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was killed trying to stop a panga boat from fleeing a nighttime interdiction off the coast of Santa Barbara was even more striking.

Horne’s death brought forth a flood of new resources and a renewed commitment to block the panga trade. That such boats are still making it up the coast with almost routine ease demonstrates the success—however imperfect—achieved by the alphabet soup of immigration, border control, and homeland security agencies interrupting the flow of drugs and immigrants via traditional terrestrial routes.

ICE, Border Patrol, and other federal agencies have famously cracked down on the border between Mexico and the United States in Texas, Arizona, and California. Smuggling tunnels have been plugged, ultralight-aircraft drops—used for drugs—exposed. According to a Border Patrol report to Congress last year, border apprehensions are down by half of what they were in 2008 and one-fifth of what they were in 2000. Under the Obama Administration, more Border Patrol agents have been put in the field—43,600—than ever before and more people have been deported who entered the country illegally. (The raw number of apprehensions apparently do not suffice as a barometer of border security for Congress.)

Using the old balloon analogy, Homeland Security spokesperson David Wales said, “If you put pressure one place, it pops up somewhere else.” The one place is the land border; the somewhere else is the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a huge ocean,” he said. “And it’s hard to keep track of everything.”

Wales said the panga trade started in earnest about six years ago, but was limited to the San Diego area. At that time, he said, pangas were just one of many maritime ruses, including surf boards, jet skis, and all sorts of pleasure craft, used to smuggle contraband from Mexico into the United States. As law enforcement squeezed the balloon in San Diego, panganistas headed up the coast, landing at isolated beaches in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Not all the landings were well thought out. In one instance, a panga crew landed near the San Onofre nuclear power plant, always well-fortified and on the look-out for would-be terrorist intruders. In other instances, boats landed at the Camp Pendleton and Seal Beach military bases.

Law enforcement agencies in Southern California demanded—and got—more resources to throw at the panga trade, and so the smugglers’ destinations inched up the coast.

Smugglers would head 75 to 100 miles off the coast of Baja Mexico and then head due north. This trajectory would take them directly to the largely un-patrolled beaches of the Central Coast. Initially, pangas registered more as a source of curiosity than cause for alarm. Undocumented immigrants and marijuana—while illegal—are important to both the Central Coast economy and lifestyle. And, for the most part, law enforcement authorities are disposed to regard the pilots of panga boats as “mules,” individuals either coerced or induced to make a one-time run, but not career criminals. Privately, some in law enforcement even expressed ambivalence—a reaction rooted as much in fiscal reality as a spirit of tolerance.

Federal authorities do not operate in a vacuum. When the Coast Guard or Homeland Security gets a tip that a delivery is imminent, a local greeting party is roused. In Santa Barbara County, this usually involves six sheriff’s deputies and a couple of state park rangers and personnel from the California Highway Patrol. And federal reimbursement for the mandatory overtime often accumulated by these deputies has been a significant bone of contention. Last July, Congressmember Lois Capps hosted a waterfront confab of federal state and local law enforcement agencies struggling with the panga trade to hash out these issues; no media was allowed.

By then, the handwriting was on the wall. In 2010, Santa Barbara County had recorded fewer than ten panga incidents. By the time Horne died in December, Santa Barbara had seen at least 21 such events. These numbers echo statewide trends. In 2008, U.S. Customs authorities reported 45 panga incidents, 230 apprehensions, and the seizure of 3,800 pounds of pot. In 2012, the number of incidents between San Diego and Santa Barbara mushroomed to 205 events and 120,000 pounds of pot seized. And in the three counties making up the Central Coast, Wales reported 36,000 pounds of marijuana had been confiscated and 110 individuals arrested.

At that July meeting, Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown politely pounded the table for more fly-overs by the retinue of aircraft under the jurisdiction of federal agencies, more boats in the water, more everything. Resources were being spent in Orange and Los Angeles counties, he complained, but the problems were being felt further north in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.

With the death of Horne early in the morning of December 2, Brown’s arguments achieved new traction. The panga in question had been spotted by a Coast Guard reconnaissance plane over the Santa Barbara Channel (just off the aptly named Smuggler’s Cove on Santa Rosa Cruz Island) and a cutter was summoned to investigate. But a boarding attempt foundered and Horne died when the fleeing panga’s propeller hit him in the head, and the panga made an escape. Although the Coast Guard maintained visual contact—by plane and then by helicopter—it’s doubtful the boat and its two occupants would have been stopped and apprehended had they not run out of gas 20 miles north of the Mexican border.

With Horne’s death, smaller law enforcement agencies were given some assurances they’d be partially compensated for any future costs incurred with revenues from a Homeland Security program dubbed “Operation Stonegarden.” Horne’s death also sparked a significant increase in the resources devoted to battling the panga influx, including “a small armada” (Wales’ words) dispatched to San Diego to keep pangas from making their way north.

 

EVEN SO, STOPPING THE PANGAS has proven much easier said than done. Not only are pangas exceedingly fast, Wales explained, they lie so low in the water they’re all but invisible to the naked eye. Drones have been enlisted to track them on high seas, as have planes, helicopters, and heat-sensitive infrared technology. Local mariners have been asked to keep their eyes and ears open, as well. Wales said he can’t comment on the extent that technology is prevailed upon in the war on pangas (it’s an open secret that the Navy runs a high-tech installation on the dark side of San Nicolas Island, tracking the acoustic fingerprints of any and all vessels in the Pacific), but the smugglers manage to avoid detection through decidedly low-tech means. By covering their boats in a blue plastic tarp, Wales explained, the vessels become all but invisible even to aerial surveillance. And at night, he added, the tarps render useless the Coast Guard’s heat-seeking technology.

Those involved in the war on pangas are quick to point out that boats now carrying human cargo or marijuana could just as easily deliver a far more dire threat. California’s two nuclear power plants, after all, are located along the coast, as are a host of other targets of strategic or headline value. Wales acknowledged that the potential threat to the United States’ national security always exists, but added that the pangas, thus far, have shown no such danger.

Still, it seems troubling that a panga could land undetected on a beach within the jurisdiction of the Vandenberg Air Force Base (the base encompasses 100,000 acres and includes a 40-mile stretch of beach) and that its crew could hide an estimated $2.7 million worth of baled marijuana in some nearby bushes before escaping. The event raised concerns—and eyebrows. Although Vandenberg officials declined to discuss the base’s monitoring practices and capabilities, Lt. Colonel Gerald Mulhollen did note, “Panga boats are routinely observed offshore of Vandenberg and in these cases the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security officials are contacted.”

The extent to which municipal law enforcement agencies have availed themselves to the terrorist threat—real or imagined—in order to secure Homeland Security funding was the target of a scathing report issued late last year by Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, a flamboyantly conservative Republican senator known to grandstand in his ongoing war against political pork. Coburn’s report showed that a branch of Homeland Security—separate, by the way, from the one funding the campaign against pangas—had underwritten local law enforcement agencies to the tune of $35 million since 2002.

In the California coastal county of Ventura, Coburn took issue with the $75,000 spent by Homeland Security on closed-circuit TVs installed around Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, which houses the city council chambers. Likewise, he had a field day with federal funds used to bankroll a five-day security training session at a San Diego spa and resort that featured, among other things, a “zombie apocalypse” in which a private paramilitary tactical unit gunned down 40 actors dressed as zombies. But far more troubling to Wales of Homeland Security than the rhetorical hay made by Coburn in his anti-pork crusade is the peril posed by sequestration and the automatic cuts that entails. While not forthcoming with exact dollar amounts, Wales predicted that sequestration could pose serious and immediate problems for local law enforcement agencies along the Central Coast. “When these assets leave the waters down south, the smugglers will figure it out and make a mad dash up here,” he predicts.

Given the political volatility of the immigration issue, it remains anyone’s guess what difference it makes whether Homeland Security devises a meaningful new index for border security or whether a plausible facsimile will suffice. But given America’s insatiable appetite for even sub-par marijuana, it appears that nothing less than a sustained attack by zombies of the apocalypse—and perhaps not even that—can put a serious dent in the flourishing panga trade.

Nick Welsh

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