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California faces threat at sea from drug smugglers

Drug smugglers are now moving their product across the ocean in the dark of night, coming ashore in Southern California, and showing no signs of backing down. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

MALIBU, CALIF. -- On a starry night in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean north of Los Angeles, a two-man California National Guard special forces surveillance team sets up a sophisticated night scope. Their mission is to search the horizon and the waters below for an increasing number of Mexican drug traffickers offloading multi-ton loads of marijuana--and sometimes illegal immigrants--on remote U.S. beaches.

"These service members are the eyes and ears of federal law enforcement here," said Lt. Kara Siepmann, of the Guard's National Drug program. When asked about what specifically they are looking for, one of the surveillance team members said, "We're looking for blacked out vessels and any suspicious activity we can find, any unusual boats coming through the area." 

Used to smuggle drugs from Mexico, this panga boat was captured near Huntington Beach, Calif., in August 2011. The faces of the three men being arrested have been obscured at the request of the HSI.


The soldiers work quietly and in the dark, aware that the Mexican traffickers have their own spotters here watching out for U.S. law enforcement personnel. "They don't want to land where the National Guard or the Border Patrol are looking for them," said Siepmann.

Turning fishing boats into drug boats
In the last few years, law enforcement officials said they have seen a considerable spike in smugglers loading drugs or immigrants onto boats in Mexico's northern Baja Peninsula, then motoring north to offload their illegal cargo along a 300-mile-long stretch of California beaches, sometimes within sight of the many luxury homes on the coastline. 

Courtesy of HSI/ICE

Used to smuggle drugs from Mexico, this panga boat was found in California's Ventura County in January 2012.

Related: Debate rages over Mexico 'spillover violence' in U.S.

Federal agents said this is the latest smuggling technique employed by Mexico's notorious Sinaloa drug cartel, headed by that country's most-wanted criminal, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The boats are small, open-hulled commercial fishing boats called pangas, which are commonly found in the inshore waters of Mexico and Central America. 

With their low profiles, the pangas are hard to spot in open water, but they can carry a large payload. Sometimes these 30- to 40-foot boats will have as many as four outboard engines, allowing them to outrun most vessels used by the authorities.

"The trend is pretty much going straight up," said Lt. Stewart Sibert, the captain of the US Coast Guard Cutter Halibut, which patrols in search of Mexican smugglers near the California coast. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Troy Matthews describes sea smuggling techniques and the dangers associated with it. 

"The past few months have been very busy for us," he said. "We caught more drugs in these past two months than in the past two years."

According to arrest statistics reported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, there were 183 known "events" in fiscal year 2011 along the California coast involving the maritime smuggling of drugs or immigrants, up considerably from the previous three years. During the first seven months of this fiscal year, there have already been 113 such events as the numbers climb even faster than last year.

California National Guard members work on secret nighttime surveillance operations to locate smugglers on the seas, attempting to reach the California coast. They use night vision goggles and infrared technology that allows them to see for miles out to sea. 

"We're seeing four and five tons of drugs come in per run and we're seeing dozens of runs. It's almost one or two per week at this point," said Sibert.

A dangerous trade heading north
Law enforcement officials have argued the rise in maritime smuggling is a direct result of their crackdown on smuggling operations along the U.S. land border with Mexico. As they first interdicted smuggling boats headed for beaches in southernmost California, near San Diego, they began to see the traffickers moving farther north to drop off their loads, which are then distributed across the country.

Related: Patrolling 'smugglers' alley' by air along the Rio Grande

U.S. Coast Guard LT. Stewart Sibert/Captain of the U.S.S. Halibut describes smuggling operations and how they bring drugs and migrants in to the country illegally.

"As we stop them in one area, they’re trying to go around us. We're sort of leapfrogging up the coastline," said Sibert. Recently, an abandoned panga and a hidden marijuana stash were found near San Simeon, Calif., more than 300 miles from the Mexican border.

"They go far out to sea to try to evade interdiction efforts along the border," said Claude Arnold, the special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations. "They typically go 100 miles out or farther due west, and then they come north," to reach the U.S. coastline.

While the panga boats are considered relatively stable when used for fishing in calm inshore waters, officials said, they can be quite dangerous in rougher waters offshore, especially if they are overloaded with drugs or illegal immigrants. The boats rarely have adequate safety equipment and authorities speculate that many may have been lost at sea, along with their passengers.

Courtesy of HSI/ICE

Used to smuggle drugs from Mexico, this panga boat was found on California's Leo Carrillo Beach in August 2011.

"It's a direct indication of these criminal smuggling organizations' complete disregard for human life. They are driven by profit and nothing else," said Troy Matthews, of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego. "You'll have somebody driving the ship who is not necessarily highly-trained. You'll have poorly maintained vehicles that will break down and subsequently they are loitering out at sea for days."

A border security threat
As they find more boats on the beaches and make more arrests, U.S. authorities are learning more about how the smuggling operation work, and the degree to which they are coordinated with land-based trafficking operations.

"We've seen some pangas that run directly up onto the beach and upload their cargo," said Sibert. "And then we've seen some that will come in and transfer their load to recreational boats that look less suspicious and try to run them directly into the marinas and yacht clubs."

Many times the panga boat operators will land at night on remote beaches near roads or a highway where they met by other members of the smuggling group. "There's usually an offloading team that will have a rental boxcar, U-Haul, or something of that nature to take the payload and transport it to a stash house where an organization begins the distribution process," said Arnold. 

A particular concern voiced by many U.S. authorities is the potential national security threat these boats and smugglers represent.  "They're just as willing to smuggle perhaps a weapon of mass destruction as they are a load of narcotics," warned Arnold.  "And they're just as willing to smuggle a terrorist as people coming here to work."  

In the middle of a presidential election year, there's a big debate between Democrats and Republicans, and law enforcement and ranchers, over how much violence from the Mexican drug war has spilled over into the United States, making it hard to get straight answers. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

To coordinate their interdiction efforts, federal, state and local law enforcement officials have formed a coastal-area task force. "As they adapt, we will adapt, and they'll continually try to find new ways to get contraband and people into the country, and we're going to be right there nipping at their heels," said Arnold.

Authorities conceded, however, that so far they are seeing no let-up in the Mexican maritime smuggling trade, and, in fact, are actually seeing bigger drug loads on boats now than in recent years.

"It's a huge challenge," said Matthews, from the U.S. Border Patrol. "It's an immense geographical area that we have to cover. There is not only single agency that can cover it by itself."