The pot-smuggling crew of a distressed panga boat landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base last week — about 1.5 miles north of Wall Beach — and off-loaded what Homeland Security officials estimate was $2.7 million worth of marijuana. It was the first known landing on Vandenberg, which commands a 40-mile stretch of coastline, and no arrests have been made despite the deployment of at least one helicopter, a fixed-wing plane, multiple horses, and several all-terrain vehicles.
According to David Wales, special agent with Homeland Security, it appears the engine had been knocked off the boat, and the occupants were forced to land where they could. After the boat was discovered, the base went into force protection mode “Bravo” and adopted what are known as “Charley” measures. Translated, that’s the equivalent of a very intense fire drill in which all 2,000 structures on Vandenberg are inspected and secured. Vandenberg media officials declined to elaborate on how a panga breached base security, explaining, “Vandenberg does not discuss security measures or monitoring/surveillance capabilities.”
According to a statement by Lt. Col. Gerald Mulhollen, “Panga boats are routinely observed offshore of Vandenberg and in these cases the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security investigators are contacted.” Last year, Homeland Security — working with a coalition of law enforcement agencies — reported confiscating 26,000 pounds of marijuana from panga boat operations taking place in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties combined, a big increase from the year before. That traffic was placed in check after a Coast Guard petty officer was killed trying to stop a panga off the coast of Santa Cruz Island this past winter. According to Wales, a “small armada” was dispatched to San Diego and that, coupled with Coast Guard air surveillance, put a significant dent in low-slung speedboats motoring up the coast from Mexico 75 to 100 miles offshore.
Because of federal budget cuts associated with sequestration, Wales suggested that the stream of pangas laden with marijuana would soon be flowing again. “We can expect an uptick in landings in the immediate future,” he said. “When these assets leave the waters down south, the smugglers will figure it out and make a mad dash up here.” Wales noted that pangas had intentionally landed at other military installations in California — Camp Pendleton and Seal Beach — but that this was a first for Vandenberg. At the time of the landing, the beach was and remains closed to the public because it’s the nesting season for the federally endangered snowy plover. Base officials said no plovers were disturbed or hurt.