Mexican pot smuggling boats seen as far north as Santa Cruz, putting lives at risk off California’s coast


Smuggler’s Cove, Santa Cruz Island, California

Mexican fishing boats, known as pangas, are typically pretty modest in size, with outboard motors and a big, high bow to give the vessel more buoyancy when casting and retrieving large nets. But according to Virginia Kice, spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), they have increased steadily in size, speed, range, and navigational capabilities. Bigger boats can float more dope, and it is not uncommon for these pangas to be carrying literally a ton or more of low-grade Mexican marijuana. What is uncommon is where they have been making port lately, once they do get north of the border.

Historically, the cat-and-mouse game between the U.S. Coast Guard and local authorities versus the onslaught of pot-filled pangas has taken place in the coastal waters off of Southern California, primarily near San Diego.
As land-based border crossings got tougher in 2008, maritime smuggling increased rapidly, and with San Diego being the nearest port north of the border, interdiction became so common, and hostile, between the Coast Guard and the smugglers, that live fire was occasionally used to halt the illegal vessels, or in self-defense against them.

U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr
A crewmember of the Coast Guard Cutter Aspen stands on a pier in San Diego after the crew offloaded over eight tons of marijuana March 22, 2009.

But U.S Coast Guard Lt. Anna Dixon referenced their successes in intercepting these boats down in Southern California with an apt analogy, saying, “It’s sort of like a balloon, where you squeeze one end and it comes out the other end.”
The “other end” in this case is further north, along California’s 840 miles of coastline, where pangas have been offloading tons of schwaggy weed in towns like Ventura, Santa Barbara, Cambria, and even as far north as Santa Cruz, where authorities are not used to dealing with these vessels, or their hardened crews.
The suspect herb, if safely brought ashore, is typically loaded into a waiting vehicle, then taken away to be repackaged and shipped out of California, where actual good buds are growing locally just about everywhere these days, to the Midwest where demand still exists.
It seems like an awful lot of work to push some low to mid-grade pot to the Midwest, but the cartels’ margins are still in the millions, which leaves enough of a cut to pay the crew members of these boats thousands of dollars each – if they get the job done, and get away with it.
These boat crews are made up of men who come from circumstances where they could not earn a few thousand dollars in an entire year playing by the rules, and it leads to desperate men taking desperate measures on the open seas off of California’s coast.
The authorities tasked with patrolling the California coastline are adapting their methods for dealing with the threat posed by these Mexican pot smugglers, based on the experience they have gained in the past five years.
That experience has not come easy, however.
On December 1st, 2012, responding to a sighting of a panga off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, in a place appropriately named Smuggler’s Bay (and probably a terrible place to hang out if you are, you know, an actual smuggler), a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter moved to intercept the smaller boat.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter

As part of procedure, they launched a smaller, inflatable vessel to make a closer approach to the 30-foot panga. After shouting verbal commands at the Mexican crew, the pilot of the panga punched the throttle and steered it directly at the Coast Guard’s smaller boat.
An officer fired his weapon in response as his own boat tried to evade the oncoming panga, but the two collided, sending the Coast Guard crew overboard where Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne hit his head on a propeller and was killed in action.
The two men operating the panga survived, and were charged with murder, on top of their other crimes. Chief Petty Officer Horne was the first United States Coast Guard officer to be murdered since 1927.
And now, up and down the west coast of the United States, they are reaching out to recreational boaters for assistance in spotting what they refer to as “suspicious looking” pangas. What could go wrong?
It bears repeating, these shipments are worthless in the California market, because of the limited legalization of medical marijuana, and decriminalization of recreational bud, that the state enjoys.
Instead, officers like Mr. Horne, and others on land and at sea, give their lives trying to prevent terrible Mexican weed from flooding the states still living under the antiquated prohibition of cannabis.
Instead of risking more Coast Guard lives over marijuana, instead of asking the average boater to police the waters in the absence of authority, the United States government can render every last dimebag of Mexican schwag worthless.
Legalize cannabis, here at home.
Click here for a really cool video of the U. S. Coast Guard taking down a panga