SAN DIEGO (LOG NEWS SERVICE) — U.S. federal authorities made the rare move of firing warning shots from a helicopter to stop a boat believed to be smuggling drugs off the San Diego coast.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a release Jan. 19 that an Office of Air and Marine helicopter crew had successfully stopped a panga Jan. 17 off the coast of Santa Catalina Island likely loaded with bales of marijuana, by using warning shots fired from the helicopter after the panga initially refused to yield.
At about 10 p.m., the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft was on patrol when they spotted a suspect panga approximately 24 nautical miles off the coast of La Jolla, traveling north toward Santa Catalina Island at a high rate of speed. The Coast Guard requested assistance from the San Diego office of the U.S. CBP Office of Air and Marine.
A CBP crew in a Blackhawk helicopter on patrol near Santa Catalina, as well as the crews from two CBP OAM Midnight Express interceptor boats, responded to the location of the panga.
The Coast Guard aircraft remained overhead to provide additional surveillance and reporting. As the CBP helicopter and boats were traveling toward the panga, the Coast Guard crew aboard the aircraft spotted those aboard the panga beginning to jettison large bales into the water. Shortly after 11 p.m., the CBP Blackhawk arrived at the location and closed-in on the fleeing panga. However, the panga failed to yield.
After several warning shots were fired across its bow from the mounted guns on the helicopter the panga stopped.
After the panga stopped, the first CBP Midnight Express vessel arrived, and the crew took the three men aboard into custody. The men were later turned over to U.S. Border Patrol agents for processing.
“This is the first time on the West Coast that we’ve deployed warning shots from an air asset down to the water,” said Mitch Pribble, director of air operations for CBP in San Diego. “You always want a vessel to stop when they are first directed to do so. However, when a suspected criminal chooses to flee, the ability to fire those warning shots gives us another option that can be used to get them to stop before they become a greater danger to law enforcement personnel, innocent civilians on the water and themselves.”
Although it may be a first for CBP, it is not the first time that a federal agency has used gunfire from a helicopter to stop smugglers off the Southern California coast.
In 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that Dec. 2 and again Dec. 10 it had used well- placed shots fired from a helicopter to stop smugglers. In both cases when the smugglers refused to stop, a member of the aircrew fired warning shots followed by engine-disabling fire to render the smugglers’ pangas inoperable.