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Crime & Justice

During the 'War on Drugs,' a scrappy band of Coronado teens made millions smuggling weed

In this May 22, 2012 file photo, part of a Navy helicopter squadron flies over beach goers on the Coronado Beach in Coronado, Calif.
In this May 22, 2012 file photo, part of a Navy helicopter squadron flies over beach goers on the Coronado Beach in Coronado, Calif.
Lenny Ignelzi/AP

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Coronado Island isn't really an island. At least, not in the traditional sense. It sits at the top of a long and narrow strip that forms the outer edge of San Diego Bay. But just because it isn't an island doesn't mean it didn't feel like one.

Before a connecting bridge was built in 1969, Coronado's isolation in plain sight of San Diego sowed the seeds of a teen drug smuggling ring. Instead of crossing the border by land, they swam marijuana from Mexico in the dead of night.

It all started as a way to pass the time, then quickly developed into a multi-million dollar drug operation. The teens would call themselves the Coronado Company. 

Katherine Nichols wrote about the Coronado Company in her new book, "Deep Water: From the Swim Team to Drug Smuggling."

She spoke about it with Take Two's A Martinez.


Who were the kids who eventually became the Coronado Company? 

They were kids who graduated — actually, one was still in school at the time. They later recruited their high school Spanish teacher, Lou Villar, who had taught at Coronado High School from about '65 to 1970.

They seem like normal, everyday kids who live near a beach. 

Absolutely. They were swimmers, they were surfers, water polo players. Eddie was a lifeguard. Bob Lahodny had been class president. 

How did they get started?

Lance was one of the first guys to start doing this. It was his idea, along with another person who is Paul Acree.

They just thought, "Oh, we'll sell a little bit, make a little bit of profit, bring it to the party at the bonfire at the beach. No big deal."

In 1971, President Nixon was initiating his campaign, "The War on Drugs." This actually started to change the dynamic of bringing things across the border. I believe this created an opportunity for guys who understood the ocean. They thought, "Hmm. Why not go around?"

Tell us what these guys were facing in the water when they swam pot from Mexico back to Coronado. 

That swim is terrifying. Number one, it's at night. That's petrifying. It's filled with great white sharks out there. 

They were facing strong currents, huge surf where they came in, sharks, jellyfish — they were very tough.

How far did they take this thing? How big did this thing get?

It got to be $100 million. That's actually a conservative estimate. Some people have said that it could have been a lot more. That's over a period of 10 years. 

This activity could never have happened today with the technology and the sophistication of the DEA. But in those days, these guys managed to stay a step ahead of the law ahead of time. After an indictment, they were on the run as fugitives for another four years. 

Press the blue play button above to hear how the drug empire came crashing down.

The book: "Deep Water: From the Swim Team to Drug Smuggling"