Jesse Aizenstat in Baja California searches out panga smugglers

Derren Ohanian / DNA Imagery

Jesse Aizenstat in Baja California searches out panga smugglers

Panga Chaser Releases YouTube Documentary

Jesse Aizenstat Spends Week in Baja California Looking for Answers to Maritime Drug-Smuggling Issue

Friday, July 26, 2013
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Earlier this year, Jesse Aizenstat’s curiosity was piqued by the sudden influx of panga boats smuggling loads of marijuana up from Baja California onto Golden State shores. A self-styled rogue journalist with a knack for packaging his reporting into slick and accessible bundles of adventure and information, the 28-year-old Santa Barbaran headed to Mexico with a translator and videographer to see for himself what was happening in the mostly lawless Baja deserts and ports populated by the Sinaloa Cartel. The result of the week-long journey is a four-part YouTube documentary that throws the viewer into the trio’s car as they survey and survive the terrain, meeting with border security experts, fugitive panga captains, and everyone in between.

Aizenstat and I sat down Friday to talk about his latest release — his book, Surfing the Middle East, was the subject of an Independent cover story in March 2011 — and why a free, entertainment-driven documentary in the travel news genre might be the best way to examine tangled, wonky issues like the border industrial complex, socio-economic disparities, drug policy and law, and so on. Part 1 of Baja Smugglers was released Thursday and can be found below. Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3, and 4 to be posted exclusively on throughout the week.

So why the panga issue? What got you so interested in it? I was driving my car and listening to an NPR story on pangas, and I just immediately knew I could do something with it. I feel like I’m working to develop a formula I spelled out in Surfing the Middle East, which is take an amusing and entertaining story and make an adventure out of it, and take the adventure and relate it back to a news story. I figured that method could communicate the news to the twenty- and thirty-somethings in a way they’ll find interesting.

Did you know you wanted to do video right away, or did you think this might turn into another book? Video is so hot. What I learned from Surfing the Middle East is that reading about a topic is great, but everyone wants to see it and hear it now. There’s an ability with video to story-tell and show things instead of say things.

What was the first step to get the project going? I hooked up with DNA Imagery and its owner, Derren Ohanian, who was our videographer. It’s a local thing, and we really believe that we can make stuff people want to watch.

How did you map your route? Before we left I wrote a treatment about how I imagined it to go [chuckles], and then it went the way it went. We had a few set interviews, but the real wild part was going down to the lawless desert, because we knew that’s where all the marijuana is grown. We were told, “The guys there will probably just be happy to see you. They don’t care; they’re in the middle of the desert.”

A makeshift shelter and presumed panga sit on Baja's shoreline
Click to enlarge photo

Derren Ohanian / DNA Imagery

A makeshift shelter and presumed panga sit on Baja’s shoreline

How did you deal with the camera? From watching the footage it looks like it was out in the open at times, then hidden at others. We had a game plan that we were going to feel it out. We always asked if we could be there taking pictures and video. We tried to befriend people with common interests. Then they would start to talk with us and open up.

Did you identify yourselves as journalists, filmmakers, tourists … ? Did people ask? Everyone was different. During the part with the guys and their tractor in the desert, we told them we were making movie. I don’t know what they thought. One guy didn’t want to be on camera, and we respected that. But really, I don’t think the smugglers come across as the villains in this piece. The villain in this piece is the American willingness to solve our social and political problems with more and more defense spending when we have other pressing problems.

Talk to me about the scene where a smuggler tells about a girl he knew who turned into an informant and was subsequently murdered. That was heavy. I suppose the inequality of the world bit us. Some people live very different lives than how we live. In the narrative arc, that was our transformation moment. It was a hot-on-the-trail-type story to hear the reality behind the panga business, then this guy just laid it out without emotion: “Yeah, they killed the girl.” We’re sitting in this panga hanger, and we have no idea what he’s going to do if he realizes the camera man left his camera on. We didn’t know he was filming until we got back to the car and he said, “Dude, I got all that on tape with audio.” There was a temptation to just delete it then and there so we would never have to deal with it.

Camping in the Baja desert
Click to enlarge photo

Derren Ohanian / DNA Imagery

Camping in the Baja desert

It seems like you guys were working at a pretty furious pace down there. There was never a moment of rest, and there was a feeling in the car that we were hot on the trail to understand every link in the chain. When we met Luis [a Tijuana-based journalist], he said we should get on a panga. Then we were told we should go to the desert, where we met the guy on the tractor. He directed us to the fishing camp. So it’s like we were heading up the river, and when we got to the panga hanger we were eye-to-eye with Colonel Kurtz. It was radical. It changed us all, certainly.

Did you arm yourselves? I suppose if we were armed with anything we were armed behind this young, surfer, tourist persona. If you come across as a suit-and-tie journalist, it just doesn’t work. The secret is showing you’re harmless then bonding with people. We met some really cool people.

What was a surprise takeaway for you? Just how business-orientated [the smugglers] are. They’re really just businessmen who are making money off the craziness that’s going on in their own country and our drug laws that don’t really make sense. So who’s coming out ahead in all this? The drug cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel. And then there’s this disproportionate response from us. Panga money is loose change compared to chasing pangas with drones. It’s a dichotomy of guerrilla vs. conventional. Pangas are disposable and the marijuana is so cheap to grow, so if one in 10 gets through, they’re doing great.

Do you have any other projects in the works? I think right now it comes down to proving relevance. Big executives have said there is a demand for travel news content, and I think VICE proved that by selling their HBO series that’s doing really well. And I think with online distribution, more and more people are seeing travel news as something to invest in. Anthony Bourdain uses food as the communicator; we’re using news as a communicator with interesting issues like pangas and the Middle East, and we’re hoping to reach hundreds of thousands of people.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I had an idea similar to Aizenstat's in the comments here:

Good stuff. Looking forward to the follow-up episodes.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
July 26, 2013 at 8:41 p.m. (Suggest removal)

OH NOOOO spiritchainyanker,

An independent journalist separate from my digs here in the main station of the SBSO's PIO's office did an investigation into Panga's coming from Baja Mexico. SAY IT AIN"T SOOOOO!!!!!

Oh wait, your gonna prolly say I planted the story just to discredit you. NOT!!!

I'll be waiting for an apology not just to me but to all women who you have used derogatory names about women to describe me. I won't be holding my breath.

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 27, 2013 at 7:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

spirityanker is MIA. When the tide turns the tin foil hat conspirators seem to run and hide. Typical flame throwers who can't back up the theories then run and hide when they are caught with their pants down.....

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 28, 2013 at 4:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

how to get killed 101 cause the cops will not save you.......

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 1:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Episodes 2 and 3 are now on youtube as well.

SB2SB (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 3:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Poor, poor little children... did you really think I'd respond right away to EVERY little piece of propaganda you could come up with? SERIOUSLY?

(Well, yes dude... cause I'm 'Priceless', and never mind that expensive "education" mommy and daddy paid for, I have the same childish mentality as the ass clown who made this youtube "series": "Duh, of course Mexicans go 2 or 3 hundred miles out in the ocean in a rowboat... totally. TOTALLY!!! DUDE, I'VE BEEN TO THE WAR! I'M LIKE A WAR CORESPONDENT!!! TOTALLY!!! DUDE!!!!")

Priceless, for an imbecile, you certainly ARE entertaining!

spiritwalker (anonymous profile)
July 29, 2013 at 11:49 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I personally missed you and am glad you're back. You liven these dusty halls up.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 12:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Oh yeah, I completely forgot to comment on the ass clown's "philosophy" - I would quote him, but it's such complete and utter rubbish, there's really no point!

I don't give a rip how many slick videos you LE hacks produce, the land border is STILL wide open, the cartels can STILL cross it at will, and there is STILL absolutely NO incentive to risk ANYONE'S life going "Del Norte" in a rowboat"!


spiritwalker (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 12:30 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks for the welcome... been entertaining myself with some 'o the sock puppets over at SB edhat - sometimes the viciousness of "people" like "Priceless" even gets to someone with skin as thick as mine. ;-)

spiritwalker (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 12:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Wow, I've just watched the "middle eastern journalist's" gag reel for the 5th time, and I just want to make sure I'm getting the punch line:

The department of "Homeland Security" spends billions of dollars on drones and video surveillance, but it wouldn't be cost effective to use those sort of measures against pangas"? And for some unexplained, unidentified, unlabeled, mysterious reason, in 2011, after 40 years of "The War on Drugs", the "cartels" suddenly started sending motorized skiffs full of Mexican brick weed to land willy nilly up and down our coast?

If anyone REALLY believes this bullsh*t, I pity them! (I think Bozo the clown could come up with a better "narrative" than this!)

spiritwalker (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 1:28 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The only "Ass clown" on here is spirityanker.

Yes "Dude" how did I know you were going to blame/accuse me of producing this article? Oh, that's right, because you haven't changed your tin foil lately.

For someone who continually states they are going to stop conversing with me you just can't stop embarrassing yourself can you? And for "Bozo" his IQ is much higher than yours you should really strive to achieve at least a single digit number first before attempting to convince yourself that you make sense. Yes, I pity the fool, fool.......

OH, I almost forgot. You should really stop playing with your "Sock puppet" you'll eventually go blind....

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 7:25 a.m. (Suggest removal)

spirityanker is this you posting on EdHat;

" It's about putting pressure on the Sheriff/Coroner to do his job, instead of the usual stalling until it can be swept under the rug.

(After all, the Sheriff's fleet of helicopters log tens or hundreds of hours per year just in "training" - wouldn't want anyone to wonder why it took so long to find a wrecked truck right off of one of the busiest stretches of road in the county, would we? I mean, it would be completely unreasonable for any of those "training" hours to be spent patrolling dangerous roads in the county or anything actually useful to county residents, no it MUST all be spent flying the "back country" lookin' for weed - 'cause that's the Sheriff's REAL bread and butter!) "

As the P I E I O at SBSO I checked with our flight crews regarding your claim of, "the Sheriff's fleet of helicopters log tens or hundreds of hours per year just in "training" once again your tin foil hat theories are getting the best of you. Which is it "Tens" or "Hundreds" can you narrow it down just a little??? Or is it just your, "ass clown's "philosophy".....

You should really change your Kool-Aid diet for something more like Prozac.... I know, I know your gonna tell me again your just trying to bait me into your mental illness issues. Damn, you fooled me again....

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 1:08 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Oh yes, the head flight bozo (or whatever his title is) totally confirmed that no training flights EVER take place. Did he also give scouts honor that every boat "discovered" on the beach in SB county since 2011 was "for sure" a panga? For sure? Totally dude?

(Ha, ha, ha... and I thought I was wasting my time responding to a psychotic little piece of trailer park trash like "Priceless" - got you to FINALLY admit to being the PIO though, didn't I?)

spiritwalker (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 3:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'm almost speechless. Do you people have jobs?! I cannot believe the level of engagement here; glad KV & Spirit missed each other (what the heck?!). I know, I shouldn't comment or read if I don't enjoy it, but it is an interesting relationship/pathology and I'm occasionally entertained. That previous suggestion of exchanging email addresses was a good one.
Also, I've been reading this paper since it was the News & Review; it's hard not to look at the comments occasionally.
"Oh No! Someone on the Internet is WRONG!" lol

geraldbostock (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 7:02 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Just because I often disagree with someone means I should dislike them? Spiritwalker's never done anything to me except call me names, boo hoo cry me a river. :) Welcome back spirit!

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
July 30, 2013 at 7:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Oh yes spirityanker you got me I can't fool a fool such as yourself you are way to smart for that.

Next you will be telling us how good Barry is doing right??

Well back to my desk thinking of ways to fool people because theres nothing better than to have lemmings like spirityanker follow me like a little puppy trying to correct the injustices in life that he believes are conspiracies.

You know we in law enforcement love to fool the public. We have a whole unit assigned to just going to the "Panga" store to purchase boats, then they go to the "Dirt Weed Shop" to buy mexican MJ, then on the way to the beach they stop by the "Illegal immigrant" holding room gather up a few illegals throw them in the boat and tell them to go out a couple of miles then return at some undisclosed beach have the media in the area then celebrate about a panga sighting high five each other then plan for the next panga party. Oooops, did I just give away our secret???

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 7:50 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Once again, why are you unable to make any comment without some sort of demented sexual innuendo?

Isn't there a single thought in the dark, twisted place that you once called a "brain" that is NOT centered on some sort of sexual perversion?

You see folks? Do you see the mentally deranged vermin we're supposed to depend on to "protect and serve" us?

spiritwalker (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 8:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

i never knew the klan had a position on the panga smuggling walkswitharope.

lawdy (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 8:37 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Are we on the same planet spirityanker or are you just making things up again?? "Demented sexual innuendo"???? Please explain this to me.....

Priceless (anonymous profile)
July 31, 2013 at 3:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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