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    Capps wants to know what Homeland Security is doing to stop panga smugglers

    By Michael Collins
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 2:56 p.m., updated December 11, 2012 at 4:29 p.m.
    Ventura County Star


    (AP Photo/The Daily Breeze)
    Some of the people detained by authorities stand with their wrists bound Monday Dec. 10, 2012 near Rancho Palos Vedes, Calif. Police believe that a Mexican smuggling boat, or panga, landed off the Palos Verdes Peninsula Monday. Authorities say 25 people were detained.


    WASHINGTON — Rep. Lois Capps and five other members of California’s delegation in the House of Representatives have requested a briefing with the Department of Homeland Security to learn what the agency is doing to fight panga-based smuggling off the state’s shores.

    In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the lawmakers say the recent death of a Coast Guard officer whose inflatable boat was rammed by suspected smugglers aboard a panga near Santa Cruz Island illustrates the dangers of the boats.

    “While the tragic death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III has brought national attention to the issue of panga smuggling, California’s coastal communities, particularly the Central Coast, have faced a significant increase in the incidents of panga smuggling over the past two years,” said Capps, D-Santa Barbara.

    Capps and the other legislators said they want to know what Homeland Security, including the Coast Guard and the Customs and Border Protection Agency, are doing to combat the rise in drug and human smuggling using panga boats.

    In addition, the lawmakers want to know what resources and tools the agencies can use to address the threats of smuggling vessels and the ways the federal government works with local and state officials to protect the nation’s shores.

    “Protecting against panga smuggling requires coordination at the federal, state and local law levels, and it is critical to ensure we are all on the same page,” Capps said.

    The letter was sent to Napolitano on Monday and was signed by Capps, as well as Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman, of Beverly Hills; Janice Hahn, of San Pedro; Sam Farr, of Carmel; Lucille Roybal-Allard, of Los Angeles; and Grace Napolitano, of Santa Fe Springs.

    “Chief Petty Officer Horne’s death must not be in vain,” Hahn said. “We need to redouble our efforts to counter this threat and ensure that we are effectively coordinating federal, state and local agencies to keep our shores and our people safe.”

    Pangas are small, open-top boats that have become popular with Mexican drug organizations in the past few years to smuggle drugs and immigrants onto California shores. The boats are typically 20 to 45 feet long and are built for speed.

    The number if coastal smuggling incidents has increased in the past four years, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures.

    In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, authorities have seized a combined 10 tons of marijuana in 14 panga busts in the past three years. Ten human smuggling incidents also were reported locally.

    Capps in July organized a briefing with local and federal law enforcement officials in Santa Barbara that focused on panga-based smuggling.

    But she and the other lawmakers decided to request another briefing with Homeland Security officials in Washington after Terrell’s death Dec. 2 elevated the issue to a national problem, said Capps’ spokeswoman, Ashley Schapitl.

    Any such meeting probably would not take place until early January because of Congress’ work schedule for the rest of the year, “but the sooner the better,” Schapitl said.

    Capps also wants to increase federal funding to fight panga-based smuggling and make sure money filters down to local agencies that battle the problem, Schapitl said.

    Capps wants to know what Homeland Security is doing to stop panga smugglers » Ventura County Star
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    Multi-Agency Effort Needed to Stop Maritime Smugglers

    Cheri Carlson
    Source: Ventura County Star, Calif.
    Created: December 10, 2012

    A fishing boat washed up on Santa Rosa Island in March 2010, bringing with it proof that maritime smuggling had reached local shores.

    About 30 feet long with an outboard motor, the panga boat carried four Mexican nationals and more than a ton of marijuana. Bound for the mainland, it ran out of gas near the remote island 26 miles off the Santa Barbara coast.

    "That was the first indication that they were here," said David Wales, an agent in Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations. "We had suspected they were coming up ... but didn't have tangible proof before that."

    In the months and years since, the number of smugglers using pangas found along the coast quickly multiplied as the route gained popularity. But as authorities thwarted the attempts, the smugglers adapted, going father out to sea and pushing northward. Stopping their progress will require continued efforts from federal, state and local agencies working together in Central California and sharing resources, officials said.

    "No one entity -- federal, state or local -- is going to be able to do this on their own," said Wales, assistant special agent in charge based in Camarillo.

    "There are more than 50 agencies ... in this collaborative effort to address this ongoing maritime smuggling threat," Wales said. "We don't see it ending anytime soon."

    Last week, the battle claimed its first law enforcement fatality off the California coast. A veteran Coast Guard officer was killed when suspected smugglers rammed a panga into an inflatable Coast Guard boat near Santa Cruz Island.

    Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, of Redondo Beach, was thrown overboard and struck in the head by a propeller. A memorial service for him was held Saturday in San Pedro.

    In a letter to be sent to the secretary of homeland security, several members of Congress say the incident highlights the danger of these smuggling vessels.

    "Unfortunately, it is hard to estimate the true prevalence of these boats as we can only count those intercepted by law enforcement or that are found abandoned on our shores," the letter says. "In that way, the issue could be even worse and yet we know nothing about them."

    Spike in smuggling

    ICE officials reported 45 coastal smuggling incidents, mostly in the San Diego area, in 2008. Four years later -- in fiscal year 2012 -- the number jumped to 210.

    Locally, authorities have seized a combined 10 tons of marijuana in 14 panga busts in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties over the past three years. Ten human smuggling incidents also were reported locally. The boats mostly came from the Baja area, officials said.

    The U.S. Department of Homeland Security leads the multiagency efforts to combat maritime threats along the California coast. One such regional group covers five counties, from Orange to San Luis Obispo.

    "Without the relationships (among agencies) that have been built and forged, a lot of these things would go unnoticed and untended," Wales said.

    The Ventura County Sheriff's Office has investigators specifically assigned to the panga problem and works with authorities in other counties to address the issue, said Assistant Sheriff Gary Pentis.

    Along with heading farther north, authorities say, smugglers have started using support boats, including some to help with refueling. A second boat involved in the Dec. 2 fatal incident might have been a refueling vessel, authorities said.

    Most suspects are prosecuted for drug trafficking, and fewer are charged with immigration offenses such as smuggling, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the Central District of California.

    They generally face a minimum of 10 years in federal prison and deportation after serving their sentence if they are not citizens, Mrozek said.

    Federal prosecutors have charged two Mexican nationals in Horne's death. They were found aboard the panga, which was intercepted by the Coast Guard after a pursuit.

    San Luis Obispo County sheriff's Cmdr. Brian Hascall said there have been two incidents in San Simeon in the past three months. The agency plans to add a customs officer to its narcotics task force to combat the problem.

    The county is rural, and smugglers think it will be easier to offload there without being noticed, Hascall said.

    "But what's working against them is this is a very populated tourist area," he said, adding that locals and tourists have reported suspicious activity.

    From the first local incident in 2010 to the most recent one last week, pangas have been spotted several times around the Channel Islands.

    After Horne's death, the National Park Service evacuated Santa Cruz Island, keeping it closed for several days to make sure all evidence was recovered and visitors were safe, said spokeswoman Yvonne Menard.

    Rangers have stepped up their efforts and training to respond to incidents, she said.

    The islands may appeal to smugglers for a variety of reasons, from providing a landmark for navigational purposes to relief from storms, Wales said. But boats spotted there also seem to have simply broken down or run out of gas nearby.

    'Ongoing evolution'

    Maritime smugglers historically have targeted the Gulf states, especially southern Florida, Wales said.

    As law enforcement efforts developed in that area, smugglers faced a choice -- run a law enforcement gantlet on the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard or look for an easier route.

    "I think now the cartels have identified that the West Coast is much more open from the standpoint that there are fewer resources for them to deal with," Wales said.

    A spike in smuggling via panga was first seen in San Diego four or five years ago, officials said. A multiagency approach was put in place, but with its success, authorities said, pangas started pushing north up to Ventura County and beyond.

    "It's just been an ongoing evolution with respect to how far they're willing to go," Wales said.

    In June, the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Asymmetric Warfare, a satellite research center at Naval Base Ventura County, held a simulation at the Port of Hueneme. The same week, three smuggling operations were reported along the Ventura County coast.

    "We give them the most realistic environment and conditions we possibly can to train," said Scott Brewer, the center's deputy director for operations.

    Brewer acknowledged, however, that training can only prepare people so much before incidents turn deadly, as they did last week.

    "This is a very distressing escalation," he said. "Things happen, and we will do our best to make sure these things don't happen again."

    Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who signed the letter to be sent Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said she wants to increase attention on the ongoing issue and improve funding for the agencies involved.

    "We don't know how far north smugglers will be taking these panga boats," Capps said Friday. "They have no respect for human life."

    Officials Say Multi-Agency Effort the Only Way to Thwart Maritime Smugglers - Page 2
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