Border patrol agents arrested nine people and seized 1,200 pounds of marijuana when a panga-style boat came ashore north of Laguna Beach shortly after midnight on Monday, Feb. 4, law enforcement authorities said.
Agents observed the boat slip through the shore break at Crystal Cove State Park and seven people unloading 26 bundles of marijuana, said agent Jerome D. Conlin, a border patrol spokesman in San Diego. Agents also detained two others who were in a vehicle in the area that attempted to flee when agents arrived, Conlin said.
Of those arrested for suspicion of smuggling, six are U.S. citizens, two others are Mexican citizens and one other is a native of Guatemala, Conlin said.
Several empty fuel canisters were also found in the vessel, said Conlin, who could provide no further details about the boat’s origin or itinerary as an investigation is underway.
The open-bow, outboard-powered boats usually used as fishing vessels typically are loaded with people or drugs south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their risky, open-ocean journeys typically end at clandestine landings and a rendezvous with waiting vans.
With greater anti-smuggling efforts in the San Diego area, smugglers are taking to the seas to deliver their cargo.
“We’ve seen a huge jump in drugs,” said Conlin. “We’ve seen they’ve gone farther out to sea and up the coast.”
In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, authorities seized 118,000 pounds of marijuana, compared to 25,000 in 2011 along the entire California coast, according to ICE data. The number of maritime smuggling incidents, from jet skis to swimmers to pangas, climbed to 779 in the same time period, compared to 631 in the previous year, Conlin said.
Officers from Newport Beach and Laguna Beach temporarily closed Coast Highway to traffic to assist agents searching the area for the boat’s passengers, Laguna’s Sgt. Louise Callus said.
The boat landed at El Moro Beach, across the highway from the state campground, said Newport police spokeswoman Kathy Lowe.
More than one group of suspected illegal immigrants on similar stealth human-smuggling voyages have stepped out on the sandy beaches of Crystal Cove and Emerald Bay in recent years.
The tradition is well established in the area. During the 1920s prohibition era, rum runners supposedly smuggled 486 cases ashore at Crystal Cove, according to a history compiled by the Crystal Cove Alliance, a park support organization.
The Crystal Cove incident comes two months after a U.S. Coast Guardsman died and a second was wounded when their boat was rammed by a panga fishing boat under investigation for smuggling near San Nicholas Island.
On Dec. 12, Santa Barbara County authorities arrested 11 people and seized 3,000 pounds of marijuana after a panga boat was tracked to the Gaviota coast.