Southern California coast sees rise in drug, human smuggling


In video of what looks like a movie scene, the Coast Guard is seen trying to shoot out the engine of a Mexican fishing boat called a panga that is trying to smuggle drugs, usually pot.

Very often, when the smugglers onboard are caught, they try and destroy evidence of their weed by throwing it overboard. The Coast Guard says increasingly, people are the product being smuggled.

"Now, this year we're seeing two to three times what we saw last year, which was two to three times more than what we saw the year before," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Eggers.

Homeland Security says that's because of increased security at the land border, thanks to more officers and better technology.

"From a smuggler's perspective, if your land route is more difficult to cross, they have to have the maritime element," said Eggers.

In response, San Diego and Orange counties have stepped up their maritime security in recent years, so smugglers are moving further and further north. Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, even San Louis Obispo counties have combined for 165 maritime smuggling arrests in the fiscal year 2012, which is way up from seven arrests just two years ago.

Eyewitness News joined the Coast Guard searching for pangas near Long Beach. To deal with this specific threat, the Coast Guard brought a 45-foot boat to Los Angeles in the last couple years.

Its main advantage is its maneuverability. Out on the water, it can go fast -- up to 50 miles an hour to actually chase down pangas.

No pangas were spotted during the ride, but in past chases some smugglers actually lit their boats on fire, hoping to burn up their weed before authorities arrived.

The recovery rate is increasing. This year, the Coast Guard brought in a record 50 tons of marijuana at an estimated street value of $50 million, quadrupling last year's haul.

"It means what we're doing is working," said Eggers.

The cost for human smuggling can be high as well. The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement granted Eyewitness News exclusive access to the secret Orange County facility where the recovered pangas are taken. There were boats that sometimes disintegrated during their journeys, and often don't come with radios or even flotation devices.

Still, ICE says passengers are usually charged $5,000 to 10,000 per ride, and the smugglers can make $200,000 per successful journey.

"If some of the people die or get arrested, don't make it, they just consider it a calculated loss," said Special Agent Claude Arnold with ICE Los Angeles. "It's just the cost of doing business. They don't look at the human side of it. We don't know how many people drowned out there. There is no record of them going on their journey."

The Border Patrol shows a cautionary video to every smuggling suspect before returning them to their country. Still, many try multiple risky trips.

Increasingly, those onboard will get off smaller pangas in the middle of the ocean and board more expensive pleasure boats to try and avoid detection.

The Coast Guard is launching a PR campaign to warn the public to look for such occurrences and call 911.

That's what San Clemente surfer Tyler Rooke did when he saw eight suspected illegal immigrants trying to flee an expensive pleasure boat. Now the alleged driver of the boat, Jesus Quinones-Chavez, is facing federal charges, accused of smuggling people for $7,000 to 9,000 each.

The smugglers that are arrested are mostly men, but there are a significant number of women and even children who attempt the journey.

There are no known deaths due to smuggling along the Southern California coast, but authorities have no idea how many may have died during the dangerous journey.

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