The relatively calm and temperate coastal waters stretching between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California have long served as an alternate route for drug smugglers hoping to avoid the heavily congested and scrutinized overland border crossing checkpoints separating the two countries.
From paddling pounds of pot over on surfboards, to cramming kilos of chronic into claustrophobic garage-built submarines, authorities on both sides of the border have pretty much seen it all when it comes to maritime marijuana smuggling on the west coast. Startling though, is what seems to be a recent uptick in interdiction involving gunfire, and whether or not that is a result of new, more aggressive tactics by the Coast Guard.
Late Monday afternoon, some 140 miles southwest of San Diego, a Coast Guard HC-130 “Hercules” crew reported sighting a 30′ panga boat speeding north as the sun began to set over the Pacific.
An open-top, outboard-motor powered vessel, pangas are common throughout the developing world with everyone from the fishermen of southeast Asia, to the pirates patrolling to coastline of Somalia and east Africa, and, more locally, with drug runners moving up and down the coastlines of the United States. A more typical panga would be only 2/3rds the size, around 20′ long, and would top out at around 35 knots, or 40mph.
A thirty-footer, loaded down with contraband, was no match for the Coast Guard radios and Cutter Active ship, which quickly arrived on scene and launched an interceptor boat and crew to stop the illegal panga. In addition to the interceptor boat, the Cutter ship, and the “Hercules” chopper, a Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine Multi-role Enforcement Aircraft was also circling overhead for further aerial support.
Still, the interceptor boat crew found it necessary to use “disabling fire” on the fishing boat’s outboard motor to stop it. The fact that pot is still being smuggled north from Mexico to California, of all places, is a sure sign of the failure of the War on Drugs, and the fact that more and more headlines regarding seizures of weed are involving gunfire is a sure sign that it is still being treated as a war.
In the case this week, nobody was injured by the shots fired at the engines, despite the weapons being fired from one speeding boat, at another speeding boat on what had to be at least somewhat choppy water. Maybe I watch too much Whale Wars on television, but it seems that with the odds stacked so heavily in their favor, the Coast Guard and their colleagues could have handled it without bullets.
Regardless, the boat was stopped dead in the water, the crew of two suspected smugglers were apprehended without incident, and 231 bales of presumably schwaggy pot were uncovered, weighing in at a whopping 5000 pounds. The men were handed over to the San Diego Marine Task Force, itself made up of an alphabet soup of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel.
Just two months ago, on October 5th, a similar panga-style boat was intercepted off of San Diego’s southern coast. Again, several air and watercraft were dispatched to stop the vessel, and again, “warning shots” and “disabling fire” was used to bring the smugglers to a stop. Again, two men were detained, and allegedly nobody was injured by the gunfire. Reportedly, however, the boat used to smuggle the 31 bales of weed was apparently so shot up that it began taking on so much water that it had to be sunk before it took down the ship towing it.
That the men and women in the U.S. Coast Guard are out risking their lives over low-grade brick weed is a shame, and any and all precautions that they can take to get home safe should be on the table. But reports from August and June of this year tell of very similar two-man panga boat smuggling operations foiled by the Coast Guard without any shots fired.
All of these reports need to be taken with a grain of salt, as they are all being released initially by the Coast Guard, whose public relations apparatus is surely second to none. And perhaps it is just an anomaly in reporting, or has long been a tactic used, but it seems that a disturbing new trend of “shoot first, ask questions later” may be becoming the status quo when intercepting these weed-boats off of San Diego’s beaches.