VENTURA— Amid a decrease in reported cases, officials in Santa Barbara County are requesting additional funding to aid in the fight against illegal panga boat smuggling.
California’s central shores, home to miles of isolated coastline, are a recent haven for the criminal smuggling of both illegal immigrants and illicit narcotics. The county reportedly received $375,000 for Operation Stonegarden in 2013 following a request from Rep. Lois Capps. The funding, according to Kelly Hoover, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, assisted in paying overtime and acquiring new equipment associated with the operation.
“Due to grant funding, we were able to purchase portable radios that will allow our sheriff deputies to be able to communicate with other state and federal agencies during a panga boat incident,” Hoover said. “The key component to apprehending and locating panga boats is communication.”
Hoover, who said she couldn’t describe specific tactics used in operation, added that the process is very time consuming in relation to surveillance procedures. Panga boats are used primarily as fishing vessels—measuring approximately 30 feet in length—and are capable of speeds in excess of 35 knots.
“We’ve seen the panga boat smuggling move up the coast, through the San Diego area and into the Central Coast,” Capps’ press secretary Chris Meagher said. “The peak was in 2012, but since we’ve coordinated our efforts, it has decreased.” Operation Stonegarden, the program constructed to prepare and ensure readiness for law enforcement officials protecting the country’s land borders, has provided funding in other parts of the coast to deter this activity. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department recently received approval to spend $493,013 in federal grant money for a new patrol boat and specialized equipment.
Capps along with Sheriff Bill Brown met with authorities April 21 to discuss smuggling deterrents for panga boat movement, and Capps has since asked for additional grant funding to further law enforcement efforts.
“The congresswomen met with 30 law enforcement officials with the hopes of continuing this coordinated effort,” Meagher said. “The funding would be provided to the state, and then from the state it would trickle down. She’s most concerned with public safety and eliminating this very risky behavior.”
Santa Barbara County has had 42 illegal panga boat landings since 2010, with the highest activity coming in 2012 with 20 cases. Hoover said there were 13 in 2013 and just two recorded instances this year.
“Most of them involve marijuana being discovered in the boat or on the shore,” she said. “In some cases, we’ve been able to apprehend and arrest suspects who are involved. In other cases, we find the boats abandoned.”
Hoover said law enforcement has seized about 28,000 pounds of marijuana from panga boats since 2010. Additionally, 46 illegal immigrants and 29 U.S. citizens have been apprehended during that period.
“We had a panga boat incident several months ago that the suspects were from LA,” she said. “They were not illegal immigrants, they were U.S. citizens. The stereotype that this is only involving citizens from Mexico is not necessarily true.”
The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s department, which monitors the shores, works in conjunction with the California Air National Guard, Homeland Security and the Coast Guard.
“Essentially, the Coast Guard is one of the lead agencies combating the maritime smuggling threat off the California coast,” said Adam Eggers, U.S Coast Guard Public Affairs detachment supervisor in Los Angeles. “The Coast Guard has unique law enforcement authorities not given to any other military branch. Because of our ability to board vessels at sea, we are almost always the agency conducting at-sea interdicts, because our vessels operate further offshore than police or sheriffs boats.”
Eggers said the problem is extensive and has trickled into areas such as San Diego.
“Usually we find pangas either beached, have intelligence that craft may be launching, or are spotted by high altitude planes operated by the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection,” he said. “Often times, Navy aircraft on patrols or training missions may also spot suspicious boats and notify the Coast Guard.”