In the ocean outside San Diego Bay, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat cruised along a remote stretch of steep cliffs. From the bow, officer Keley Hill pointed to a barely discernible notch in the sandstone.
“There used to be a pipe and a rope that hung down right there and we’d have to go down and cut the rope, and they’d replace it," said Hill, who has spent years pursuing smugglers along this stretch of California coastline.
Hill directed the agency's maritime operations in San Diego for nearly 12 years. Before maritime smuggling picked up around the middle of the last decade, he said, smugglers coming from Mexico preferred recreational boats that could blend in ordinary boat traffic.
Around the mid-2000s, they switched to boats called "pangas," small, open-hulled vessels of fiberglass or wood typically used by fishermen and inexpensive enough to abandon.
Hill remembers when the pangas began landing on San Diego beaches in growing numbers, sometimes laden with drugs, sometimes people. He remembers a late-night chase outside the bay years ago, after officers caught sight of a panga trying to land.
“It was a little 18-foot, single engine panga, small – had 18 people on board," Hill said. "And that panga had a tiller engine, so that made it very, very maneuverable. Chasing this little 18-footer than can literally turn on the dime. … It was a very bumpy ride.”
In the San Diego area, maritime smuggling started increasing around 2006, as Hill recalls. But as authorities became better at spotting them, the smugglers moved north. First into the waters off Orange County, then Los Angeles, where incidents began picking up around 2010.
"As '10 progressed, you had a few incidents happen up around Malibu," Hill said. "Then '11, '12, '13, you start seeing the creep, up around Ventura County and Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo, and now as far as Monterey Bay, which is what we have now.”
It's no longer surprising to find smuggling boats from Mexico on L.A. County beaches: Two were found last month in just a week's time, one in Rancho Palos Verdes carrying 17 people, another in Malibu carrying almost two tons of marijuana.
Meanwhile, smugglers keep traveling farther from the border evade being caught. As they do, they’ve adapted.
"Distance becomes a huge factor," Hill said. "So what they do is they go bigger. You’ve got to carry more fuel, so you’ve got to have a bigger boat. And so at the same time, now they are starting to carry more weight, more weight of contraband. And as you go further, you have less alien loads, and more contraband. The vast majority of that being marijuana.”
Human smuggling along the California coast peaked around 2010, according to CBP. But as the open-hulled pangas head farther north, sometimes more than a hundred miles out to sea, carrying human cargo becomes not only more dangerous, but logistically difficult. Carrying pot doesn’t.
In the last year, the quantity of drugs that authorities have found being smuggled up the California coast has nearly doubled: Since the beginning of October, they’ve seized almost 70,000 pounds of marijuana, compared with 37,000 pounds a year ago. The biggest amount this year has been found in San Luis Obispo County.
These long-haul trips typically often require refueling at sea, courtesy of another boat that travels along with fuel. But the massive shipments are partly explained by another recent phenomenon, dubbed the super-panga.
“We have a picture of one on the beach and you see adult men standing next to them, and they look like little kids, because the boat is as high as their heads,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles area for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
These super-sized smuggling boats can be 50 feet long or more, Arnold said, about twice the size of the average panga, with deep hulls big enough to accommodate up to ten tons of marijuana.
“And because it is a bigger boat," he added, "it can accommodate four 300-horsepower outboard motors, so they are also very fast.”
As the smugglers have moved north, agencies ranging from the U.S. Coast Guard to local sheriff’s departments have coordinated efforts. In recent years, the Coast Guard has taken on the bulk of enforcement on the water from Orange County on up. It's dangerous work.
Coast Guard officer killed
In December 2012, senior Coast Guard officer Terrell Horne was killed when he tried to intercept a suspected smuggling boat in a spot known as Smuggler’s Cove, off Santa Cruz Island.
“The vessel that he was driving that night was rammed by a panga vessel," said Commander Casey Hehr, chief of law enforcement for the L.A.-area Coast Guard sector, where Horne worked. "He was actually thrown into the water.”
Horne died from a head injury after landing in the water. This week, the agency rededicated its headquarters on Terminal Island as the Terrell E. Horne III building.
The two men piloting the panga that struck Horne's vessel were arrested; both were sentenced to federal prison this Monday, one of them for life on murder charges. The incident serves as a somber lesson as to what authorities are dealing with, Hehr said.
“That, I think, showed what everyone’s worst fear was, that the people who are driving these pangas are bad characters, they really are.”
The Department of Homeland Security has stepped up criminal prosecutions of smugglers in the last year, going after the criminal networks behind the boats. Both DHS and the Coast Guard have also been reaching out to the public, distributing posters in marinas and other places that boaters gather and urging them to call in with tips.
Back in the ocean outside San Diego Bay, the Customs and Border Protection boat edged close to a recreational boat with two men aboard, holding fishing poles.
The two anglers turned and waved – a good sign, Keley Hill said.
“Often times, what the crooks will play is if you don’t see me, I don’t see you," he said. "You’ll be standing right there, and they will not turn their head one inch.”
Hill and others who keep and eye on the coast say it’s much harder to find contraband on what they call the covert smuggling boats – domestic pleasure craft or fishing vessels, which some smugglers still do use.
The pangas, at least, area easier to spot, and account for the majority of smuggling boats that authorities encounter these days. And while they still typically land at night, the farther north they go, it’s less predictable when authorities may encounter them.
"The real answer is 24-7, because a boat going to Santa Barbara doesn’t get there in an hour," Hill said. "It’s going to take 24 hours for it to get from its launch point to its landing point."