Suspected smuggling boat found in Rancho Palos Verdes

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Authorities are investigating an incident in which a suspected smuggling boat washed ashore early Saturday at Abalone Cove Shoreline Park, a rocky and secluded stretch of coast in Rancho Palos Verdes.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said there were no arrests and no drugs found, just 16 life vests on board the small, open-hulled fishing boat.

"That is a little but unusual, because most of the vessels we are encountering in the L.A. area and northward are carrying physical contraband," Kice said.

Specifically, marijuana. Kice said that while maritime smuggling incidents along the Southern California coast are down from last year, smuggling patterns have shifted in that there are fewer humans being smuggled, and much more pot. The loads intercepted have gotten bigger, with smugglers modifying the boats they typically use - referred to as pangas - with hulls that can accommodate more.

"We are encountering seven-ton loads," Kice said. "In the old days, we'd find 2,000- or 3,000-pound loads. Now they are building these super-pangas with deeper hulls."

The boat discovered in Rancho Palos Verdes this weekend was a panga, traditionally used as a fishing boat in Mexico. Because these boats are inexpensive, smugglers often abandon them after they deposit their loads in the U.S.

Maritime smuggling along the California coast began picking up toward the end of the last decade as smuggling routes by land became tighter, with human smugglers routinely depositing migrants along the coast near San Diego. As authorities beefed up enforcement by sea, smugglers began heading farther north - and traveling farther out to sea.

Kice said that last month, a panga was found abandoned on a state beach in Carmel, about 300 nautical miles of Los Angeles.

There have been injuries and deaths, including the deaths of two migrants traveling on a boat that capsized off Torrey Pines State Beach in 2010. Last month, two suspected drug smugglers were convicted of killing a Coast Guard officer when they rammed their boat into his craft near Santa Cruz Island in December 2012. And while there's no hard evidence that pangas have wrecked on the open sea, bales of marijuana have been found floating in the ocean.

Kice said that the shift toward fewer humans and more drugs has happened as smugglers head farther north. They have devised ways of refueling at sea, sometimes with another boat meeting them along the way to deliver more fuel. And while marijuana is still the preferred contraband, there have been other drugs found lately: Last month, a pleasure craft was discovered in Oceanside Harbor carrying more than 500 pounds of methamphetamine.

Lately, Homeland Security officials have focused on the criminal organizations behind the smuggling boats: According to ICE, there have been 34 criminal indictments tied to maritime smuggling cases in the last six months, compared with only seven indictments in 2010. 

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