Published: December 8, 2012
New York Times

Lt. Stewart Sibert/United States Coast Guard, via Reuters

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, 34, was killed last week off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., when smugglers rammed their 30-foot fishing boat into the small Coast Guard vessel he was on.

LOS ANGELES — The small, open-hull fishing boats head north from Baja Mexico, traveling at night, their navigation lights off. It is an old smuggling route, popular with tequila runners during Prohibition in the 1920s and then little used for nearly a century.

But as a result of a security crackdown along the border with Mexico, the waters off Southern California have again been teeming with smugglers in the last few years, as drug cartels seek new avenues to move illicit cargo into the United States.

Last week the resurgence claimed its first American life when smugglers rammed a small Coast Guard vessel with their 30-foot fishing boat, killing a Guard member who was thrown overboard.

“There’s been an uptick in smuggling at sea because we have been successful in making it difficult for smuggling organizations at the land border,” said Claude Arnold, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles. “They’re trying everything they can to get their products into the country.”

Episodes involving smugglers off the California coast have increased fourfold since 2008, with more than 200 smuggling vessels spotted by American law enforcement agencies during the last fiscal year. Marijuana seizures from maritime smugglers, meanwhile, were up fourfold from just one year earlier. And some smugglers are also carrying human cargo, circumventing the security along the land border for those with the means to pay for it.

Federal officials said there was no way to know precisely how many smugglers had successfully reached California’s shores, but they believe that “a larger share” of smugglers make it through. And the flow of drugs and people into the country from the sea has clearly undercut some of the progress the authorities have made in blocking off overland supply routes.

In just a few years, officials said, drug and human trafficking off the coast here has grown into an elaborate, highly lucrative and increasingly dangerous operation, as smugglers venture farther out to sea and farther north along the coast in search of safe places to deliver their cargo undetected.

Coast Guard officials said the death of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, 34, was the first time a Coast Guard member had been killed by smugglers since prohibition. But as rare as it was, the deadly encounter early last Sunday near an island off Santa Barbara also demonstrated some of the bold tactics smugglers are using here, putting law enforcement at ever greater risk.

“As the ships are going further offshore and further north, we are dealing with larger boats and more horsepower,” said Rear Adm. Karl L. Schultz, the Coast Guard commander in the region. “It does increase the challenge and the inherent danger out there to our folks on the water.”

When the surge in maritime smuggling began here around 2009, Admiral Schultz said, smugglers mostly used small boats with single engines that delivered their payloads to sites in San Diego County, rarely traveling more than 50 miles north of the Mexican border.

As the government devoted more resources to curbing smuggling, however, the Sinaloa drug cartel, which officials say controls smuggling corridors on both land and sea, has adapted.

Coast Guard surveillance aircraft have detected smuggling vessels up to 100 miles offshore, Admiral Schultz said, and in the last two years, smugglers have been arrested along remote stretches of beach on California’s Central Coast, more than 300 miles north of the border.

To make these longer journeys, smugglers have moved from cheap 20-foot fishing vessels to boats that are often twice that size and sometimes equipped with multiple engines.

Other ships, like the one that rammed Chief Horne’s boat, act as refueling vessels. The authorities in San Diego said last year that they had found a boat equipped with a GPS device, which led them to a cache of fuel drums tied to buoys 50 miles offshore.

This year, a 45-foot boat washed up near Santa Barbara, 100 miles up the coast from here. Sheriff Bill Brown of Santa Barbara County said it had four engines and could outrun all the boats in his department’s fleet. He estimated that the boat cost at least $100,000 and could have carried 10 tons of narcotics.

“They ended up just abandoning it,” he said. “It shows the amount of money they are making bringing drugs up here.”

One shipment of marijuana that Sheriff Brown’s department intercepted on a state beach several months ago had an estimated street value of $4.2 million.

It is not only moving large shipments of drugs that is lucrative for the cartels, however. People trying to enter the country will pay up to $10,000 for passage on smuggling boats, a much steeper price than they pay to be brought across on land, said Mr. Arnold, the ICE official.

As the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and smugglers moves farther out to sea, however, it also becomes more dangerous — not only for the Coast Guard but also for the smugglers’ human cargo.

At least six people are known to have died aboard smuggling vessels since 2008, according to United States Customs and Border Protection, all in episodes close to shore. Many more may have died out at sea if open-hulled smuggling boats, often packed with more than a dozen people, capsized or sank.

So many smuggling vessels have landed on the shores of Santa Barbara County that Sheriff Brown appealed for federal help this year. And federal authorities have begun to devote more resources toward combating maritime smuggling, not only in San Diego and Los Angeles, but farther up the coast.

Helicopters and planes watch from the air — it was a Coast Guard aircraft that spotted the smugglers before the deadly encounter last Sunday — while ships pursue smugglers farther and farther offshore. And the authorities have convened a series of task forces, bringing together local, state and federal agencies to fight maritime smuggling here.

“We have directed a lot of resources towards this because we recognize it as a huge potential security vulnerability,” Mr. Arnold said. “Who’s to say they wouldn’t be willing to smuggle a terrorist into the county?”

Still, law enforcement agencies in California said they needed more resources.

David Myers, a commander with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, said financing from a federal grant that had helped his department apprehend maritime smugglers had been cut every year since 2009. And those shrinking finances must be shared with more and more counties.

“The ocean is wide open, but the key is they have to land somewhere,” Commander Myers said. “It would be easy for us to deny them a place to land if we were ever able to apply the same resources to the coast as we have along the land.”