Santa Barbara’s panga problem isn’t going away anytime soon. And, based on an incident early Thursday morning and on a conversation with a Homeland Security special agent later in the day, it seems likely to get worse before the tides are turned.
At around 1:30 a.m., federal authorities arrested 13 individuals who landed their 35-foot panga boat under the cover of darkness on a remote stretch of sand between El Capitan Beach and Refugio Beach on the Gaviota Coast.
Taken into custody were 11 men and two male juveniles. Four are U.S. citizens, eight are Mexican nationals, and one is from El Salvador. Special Agent Dave Wales with Homeland Security Investigations said it’s likely there were other people on the boat who eluded capture. Also on board was 6,620 pounds of marijuana that was seized as evidence. The 13 suspects will be charged in federal court Friday, said Wales, explaining their identities won’t be released until then.
Wales said that authorities on a routine, anti-maritime smuggling patrol spotted the panga boat — a type of slender, open craft built for speed and maximum carrying capacity — when it was still offshore, then descended onto the beach when it made landfall. Assisting the state and federal law enforcement contingent, which included State Parks rangers and U.S. Border Patrol agents, were CHP officers and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputies.
This latest incident is part of a growing trend on the South Coast of panga boats launching from Baja California and brazenly smuggling people and pot onto Santa Barbara shores. The Gaviota Coast has proven an especially attractive site for landing because of its general remoteness but close proximity to major roadways, explained Wales. His office and others are actively working to track the drugs that make it onto U.S. soil. “We have a pretty good idea where it’s going when these events are successful,” he said. “We’re certainly working that angle.”
The push out to sea is spurred by increased crackdowns on the border, and pangas loaded with multiple fuel barrels have been spotted as far north as San Francisco. The Los Angeles and Long Beach areas have seen a similar increase in incidents. Few weapons have been found on board the boats, though knives and other bladed weapons are recovered from time to time, said Wales.
Sheriff Bill Brown and Congressmember Lois Capps met two weeks ago with a group of state and federal law enforcement officials to brainstorm ways to deal with maritime smuggling in the area. It’s not clear what strategies were hashed out — the meeting was closed to the media — but both Brown and Capps said afterward they were pleased with the open communication and coordination that took place. It’s Browns hope that Santa Barbara will soon be able to take better advantage of federal and/or state resources to combat the issue.
Wales stated that there have been 14 or 15 panga-related incidents in Southern California so far this year. Over 25,000 pounds of marijuana has been seized, and 85-90 arrests made. Those numbers stand in stark contrast with 2011 statistics. Last year, he estimated, there were less than 10 events and only around 200-300 pounds of drugs discovered. “I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” he said.
Wales stressed that if a member of the public sees a potential panga boat they should immediately call authorities and not try to make any apprehensions themselves. “Be a good witness,” he asked. “The last thing we want is someone putting themself in harm’s way and getting hurt.”