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Record Level of Maritime Smuggling Moving North Along California Coast

record level of maritime smuggling along California coast
Abandoned smuggler's boat in Rancho Palos Verdes, California (CBP)

Published Aug 24, 2021 6:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

The level of maritime smuggling activity has increased significantly, reaching record levels along the Southern and Central California coast this summer, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In addition to the increase in the number of incidents, the authorities report the smugglers have become more brazen and moved further north along the coast in an effort to avoid detection.

During July, the joint operations of CBP and its Air and Marine Operations, U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security, and U.S. Border Patrol reported responding to 12 smuggling incidents ranging from Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties. These smuggling attempts along the coastline of Palos Verdes, Long Beach, San Pedro, Malibu, Newport Beach, and the first-ever landing on Santa Catalina Island, resulted in the apprehension of 90 undocumented individuals. While most were adult males of diverse nationalities, CBP reports that females and teenagers were also among those apprehended.

“The transnational criminal organizations involved with maritime smuggling are a continuing threat to border security, public safety, and national security,” said David Prince, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles. “Identifying, targeting and reducing these security vulnerabilities affecting the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport complex, Southern and Central California coastlines and the waterways and transportation infrastructure that tie into them -- is a priority. Working closely with our federal and local partners, HSI will use all the resources and tools at our disposal to dismantle these organizations at every level of operation.”

Although smuggling activity through the coastline is nothing new, it was an activity traditionally seen near the Southwest border. As enforcement operations ramp up at the border, criminal organizations have expanded their area of operations further north. These smuggling events often use pleasure crafts and repurposed Mexican fishing vessels known as “pangas,” to smuggle migrants and narcotics into the area.

This summer, Border Patrol launched a new marine unit to patrol the waters off Southern California. It was in part deployed as a response to the sinking of a smuggling boat off Point Loma in San Diego as well as the overall increase in reports of smuggling incidents along the coastline. The ship that sunk in May was smuggling 33 people into the United States when it broke up after grounding resulting in the death of three people and numerous hospitalizations. 

Smuggling along the California coastline is inherently dangerous the joint operations force highlights with many less publicized incidents beyond the May 2021 sinking that gained national attention. On July 8, two migrants were hospitalized with hypothermia after a panga capsized in Encinitas.  Before that, on May 20, a migrant perished after smugglers aboard a panga dropped off migrants into the surf. Also, this year, on April 17, a deceased migrant was found onboard an abandoned panga in Carlsbad.

“Heartless and unscrupulous smugglers continue exposing undocumented individuals, men, women, and children to the grave dangers associated with maritime smuggling including capsizing, hypothermia, and drowning,” said AMO’s Deputy Director, Air Operations San Diego Air and Marine Branch, Brandon Tucker. 

The joint operations force, the Department of Homeland Security Regional Coordination Mechanism (ReCoM), in coordination with local law enforcement agencies, is working to identify, intercept, and disrupt criminal organizations operating along the California coast.