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For boat captain, rescuing maritime smugglers is part of the job

by Jill Replogle, Fronteras Desk | Take Two®

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In this handout provided by U.S. Coast Guard, he crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca interdicts a drug smuggling, self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) vessel carrying cocaine on an unspecified date in the western Caribbean Sea. It was the first interdiction of an SPSS in the Caribbean. U.S. Coast Guard/Getty Images

There's been a rise in maritime smuggling of illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico into California. Earlier this month, the stakes were raised when a member of the U.S. Coast Guard was killed by suspected smugglers off the Ventura County coast. From the Fronteras Desk, reporter Jill Replogle has the story.

SAN DIEGO — The sun is dipping below the horizon off the coast of Ocean Beach in San Diego. A tow truck is backed up to a steep cliff that falls 40 feet down to a tiny cove. It's trying to pull a small sport fishing boat out of the sand — the kind of boat you might see out trolling for yellowtail.

The boat is very stuck. Captain Eric Lamb and his boat rescue team have been working to get it out for about 12 hours, and they're not even close.

“At the time, we were in high tide and the boat actually ended up going pretty much all the way under water several times and filled up with sand,” Lamb said. “And then (it) got buried in the sand, so it’s been quite a fiasco to get it out today.”

Lamb works for a company called Vessel Assist. It’s like AAA for boats.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection contracts out with companies like this to pick up abandoned smuggling boats along the Southern California coast.

Law enforcement agents and people who work with them, like Lamb, have seen a spike in illegal traffic here. Authorities documented more than 200 smuggling attempts in 2012 between the U.S.-Mexico border and San Luis Obispo County in Central California.

That makes it a record year. Many more smuggling attempts — successful or not — surely went undetected.

Lamb has dug out, towed, and trailered a lot of the boats that get left behind.

“In the last nine years with this company we’ve probably pulled well over 150 boats off the beach up and down between here and L.A.,” Lamb said, taking a break from trying to dig out the fishing boat.

It would eventually take him and his team more than 15 hours to get the boat off the beach.

Lamb doesn’t just remove beached boats. Ironically enough, some smugglers call Vessel Assist for a tow when they’ve broken down or run out of gas at sea.

Lamb said it’s often easy to tell when a client is in the smuggling business.

“If you get a boat that calls you at three in the morning and they’re five miles off of Imperial Beach, there’s not a lot of people pleasure riding at three in the morning off I.B.,” he said, using the initials commonly used to describe the beach just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Normally they’ve come up from Mexico and so when you get there you start getting all the information together and you pass it on and see what happens,” he said. In other words, he calls the authorities.

Lamb said he’s seen a lot of changes in this business of smuggling by sea. Open-hulled boats called pangas used to be the vessel of choice. The boats take off from Ensenada or elsewhere in Baja California, race up the coast at night, and drop off their cargo —drugs or people —on deserted beaches.

Abandoned or seized pangas used to get auctioned off. But law enforcement agents were seizing the same boats again and again, so now they’re chopped to pieces.

“They’ve managed to just about deplete the fleet in Ensenada,” Lamb said.

These days, smugglers are using a variety of boats, including pleasure craft registered in the U.S. They're going farther out to sea and further up the coast — hundreds of miles from the border.

For coastal law enforcement, it’s getting more dangerous. In early December, Coast Guard member Terrell Horne III was killed when two suspected smugglers rammed his boat off the Santa Barbara coast. The smugglers fled but were captured off San Diego.

The two Mexican nationals arrested in the killing were indicted on December 13 by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles.

Lieutenant Commander Matthew Jones, chief of enforcement for Coast Guard in San Diego, said Horne's death hadn't led to any major changes in the way the Coast Guard operates.

“I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than before,” he said. “Horne’s death was a tragedy, an absolute tragedy, and it certainly makes us all re-examine what we’re doing to make sure we’re doing it safely and effectively.”

Unlike Coast Guard members, Lamb usually answers calls from stranded boaters alone and unarmed. He said the job has definitely gotten riskier in recent years.

"Quite honestly we realize now there’s nothing stopping them from, you know, I pull up alongside to get ready to get ‘em, and they shoot me, throw me over the side, load everything in my boat and they can go anywhere they want with the boat," Lamb said.

Still, he said, he’s not too worried about his own safety. Most smugglers try to keep their business on the quiet. And if their boat breaks down, Lamb just might save their lives — and their cargo.

“It they’re running drugs, most of the time they’ll tend to just be my best friend at the time,” he said.

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