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Channel Islands panga bust, 2015
Panga found in 2016

Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) has been smuggled on and around the Channel Islands for more than half a century. Smuggling planes, boats, and most recently pangas from Mexico, have been found laden with bales of marijuana both on various islands and anchored offshore. From Oct. 1, 2011 to Aug. 22, 2012, authorities recorded more than 180 smuggling cases in Southern California.

In the News~
Marijuana: San Clemente Island

September 14, 1981 [LAT]: “The body of a suspected marijuana smuggler was recovered Sunday from San Clemente Island where he had crashed his twin Beechcraft into a hillside, scattering 900 pounds of marijuana ‘all over the place,’ customs officials reported. Federal officials suspect that the plane crashed last February when the pilot, who was already known to law enforcement authorities, was returning from Mexico with a full cargo. ‘We can only suppose that he was off on his navigation and thought that he was still over water,’ said Pete Grootendorst, U.S. Customs air support branch chief. ‘He hit the mountain at about 200 feet elevation.’ The remains of the crash were discovered Friday by a Navy helicopter pilot who was flying over the section of San Clemente Island used by the Navy for target practice. The discovery of the crash has triggered investigations by a host of government agencies, including U.S. Customs, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Navy, which has a base on the island, the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office. Authorities would not identify the victim, but Grootendorst said that both the man and his airplane had been suspected of smuggling marijuana across the border…”

July 6, 2011 [SDUT]: “Authorities seized a total of 2,200 pounds of marijuana and two smuggling boats in two separate incidents off coastal waters last week, according to the San Diego Maritime Unified Command. On Thursday, a commercial commuter pilot reported a suspicious boat near San Clemente Island, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Henry Dunphy said. A Navy vessel in the area spotted the boat and watched it until Coast Guard crews arrived to board the suspicious boat. On boat, the boarding team found 112 bales of marijuana. Two suspected smugglers were taken into custody, Dunphy said. In a separate incident, authorities spotted another suspicious boat late Friday afternoon near Point Loma. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection boats with the help of a helicopter intercepted the suspected smuggling boat apparently fleeing south, Dunphy said. On board, authorities arrested two suspected smugglers who had attempted to dump 21 bales of marijuana into the water. Crews recovered the drugs from the water. The Maritime Unified Command is made up various federal andlocal law enforcement agencies, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Its main mission is to patrol the coastal waters and guard against drug and people smugglers attempting to come into the country by sea.”

December 03, 2012 [LAT]: “A member of the US Coast Guard was killed in the line of duty early Sunday morning when his vessel was rammed by a panga boat carrying Mexican marijuana. Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, becomes the 60th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year. According to KABC TV in Los Angeles, citing a Coast Guard statement, a Coast Guard cutter intercepted two boats — a pleasure craft and a panga boat — near San Clemente Island about 1:00am Sunday. The Coast Guard found marijuana on the panga boat, which was being operated by Mexican nationals. After taking the pleasure craft into custody and detaining two people on board, the Coast Guard cutter crew lowered its smaller boat into the water to take custody of those aboard the panga boat. As the Coast Guard craft approached the panga, its driver rammed it, driving over the top of the Coast Guard craft and knocking two officers into the water. One officer was recovered without serious injury, but Horne suffered head injuries and was pronounced dead when brought ashore. "We are deeply saddened by the loss of our shipmate. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends, and his shipmates aboard Coast Guard Cutter Halibut," said Admiral Robert J. Papp, Coast Guard Commandant, in a statement. The two people in the panga were later taken into custody, along with the two people in the pleasure craft. Their identities have not been released. In recent years, as US authorities have concentrated on blocking traditional land smuggling routes, Mexican smugglers have increasingly taken to using the sea as a pipeline to the US. The number of smugglers and immigrants arrested at sea in 2010 was 867, more than double the number arrested in 2009.”

Marijuana: San Miguel Island

November 22 1984 “Their suspicions aroused, the U.S. Coast Guard arrested three men and one woman aboard the 60 ft. sloop Mir off San Miguel Island on November 22, 1984. The crew found eight tons of marijuana on board valued at $6.7 million. A radio check made after boarding the vessel revealed that the Mir had been stolen from a U.S. Customs warehouse a year earlier. In March of 1985, the skipper of the Mir and apparent leader of the group, Richard Dobson of Texas, was sentenced to seven years in prison. He had served time before for smuggling. The others received lesser sentences. ”

Abandoned panga, San Miguel Island, 2017. The cheap, fast, and unremarkable panga boat has been a fixture off the California coast for years. Even after El Chapo's capture, it may be a cartel standard.

June 29, 2017 []: “The morning of February 16, 2015, began with promise for 61-year-old commercial diver Eric Bjorklund. Diving for sea urchin, he discovered the stern of an abandoned and mostly submerged boat and two outboard motors jutting out of the water near San Miguel Island, California. Bjorklund knew he could claim the boat as salvage and take it in for a nice paycheck, he recalled in an interview. But it wasn't just any boat: The roughly 30-foot-long vessel was a panga, the craft law enforcement officials suspect is sometimes used by El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel to smuggle drugs into the United States. After spending the next hour and a half bucketing water out of the thing and finally reaching the boat's loading ramp, Bjorklund and his assistant were greeted by officers from several US government agencies pointing rifles at them, he told me. Over the past several years, panga boat smuggling has been a consistent, if uneven, presence along California's Central Coast. For some in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the pangas are a sign that border crackdowns and drug busts actually have an impact, forcing cartels to resort to aquatic access points. But their continued use suggest cartel methods may not have changed all that much since the much-hyped 2014 capture, and 2016 recapture, of former Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Despite the unique risks that come with smuggling via water, pangas seem to have become a regular means of transportation for smugglers of all kinds, whether or not they are tied to cartels. Compared to the sleek, picuda boats used by smugglers in the Caribbean, pangas are cheap, easy to build, lightweight, fast, and lend themselves to blending in along the Baja California region. The Coast Guard refers to both kinds of boats as "go-fasts," which isn't to say they're particularly safe. "Most drugs are [still] transported via vehicle past the border in small loads," one DEA intelligence agent said through a spokesman. "There's a long risk moving it on the high seas. Still, pangas aren't expected to disappear as the Sinaloa dukes it out with rival Cartel de Jalisco Nuevo Generacion for territory. Among the more recent panga sightings was that of a 30-foot-long vessel on May 19 near Refugio State Beach in Southern Santa Barbara County, California. Five bales of marijuana were uncovered in nearby bushes, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.

Long considered one of the pioneers of the modern panga, Mac Shroyer told VICE he started building the boats in the early 1970s, around the time when a new ferry service and the construction of a 1,000-mile-long highway connecting the Baja peninsula to the mainland made it easier to ship locally-caught fish inland. The 82-year-old expatriate originally from Barrington, Illinois still runs a marina with his wife and son in La Paz, Mexico. Shroyer started building wood pangas no more than 26 feet in length, before moving onto fiberglass. Creating one is a "pretty straight forward process" that involves forming the hull around a mold with several layers of fiberglass and resin, and then painting it, Shroyer explained. It's labor-intensive work, he added, but several boats can be built over the same mold, and the process hasn't changed a whole lot decades later." "They're all molded in a very well-established system of molds, and employees were trained very quickly to build them," Shroyer told me. The simple and bare V-shaped hull lended itself to easy modification, and the boat's resiliency enabled fishermen to carry huge loads of fish to market, according to Shroyer. They're cheap, too: Shroyer estimates that his signature boats cost anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000, the bigger ones fetching a higher price. The boats have become so ubiquitous that Shroyer claims they're responsible for some of the overfishing along the Baja coast.

Bigger pangas, 30-plus feet long, eventually came on the scene—these vessels could handle outboard motors of up to 125-horsepower. Eventually, pangas seem to have been adopted by drug cartels, emerging as a regular sight for coastal communities further north along the Sea of Cortez, where cars and trucks waited to drive drug loads to the border. The lightweight design and shape makes the boat easy to haul onto an exposed beach for quick offloading, Shroyer said. And their inexpensiveness means they can be easily abandoned. The boats are generally considered dangerous by savvy locals: In December 2012, a panga rammed a US Coast Guard boat, killing 34-year-old Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III. And they're extremely difficult to track in a six million-square-mile transit zone, even one frequently patrolled by Coast Guard cutters. Sometimes, the boats are covered in tarps to help avoid detection. "The sheer size and scope of the area makes apprehending narcotics traffickers extremely difficult," said Lt. Max Franco, a spokesman for the Eleventh Coast Guard District, which patrols the waters off California. "You can put the entire continental US out in the eastern Pacific Water." Since the notorious Terrell episode, pangas have made for an occasional site along California's remote beaches, particularly in Santa Barbara County, where incidents peaked at 30 in 2013, according to statistics provided to VICE by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.

Marijuana: Santa Catalina Island

April 20, 2010 [LAT]: “ Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies seized about 4,000 pounds of marijuana valued at about $3 million and detained three Mexican nationals after a flat-bottomed motorboat ran aground in a remote area off Catalina Island, sheriff's officials said Monday. A department employee on the island called for backup from the sheriff's Avalon station at 5:45 p.m. Sunday after seeing that the 30-foot panga with two 250-horsepower motors and 400 gallons of fuel aboard had become stranded in Cottonwood Cove, a remote area on the southwest side of the island, said Capt. Mike Parker of the Sheriff's Department. Deputies said three men aboard the boat claimed they had paid a smuggler to bring them to the United States and were abandoned after the boat ran aground. Deputies found what appeared to be multiple bundles of marijuana on the boat, Parker said. "This was discovered because of a very observant sheriff's employee working a remote part of the island," Parker said. "He saw something that looked suspicious. It's not typical to see a boat run aground there. His suspicions were raised, and he thought there was more to the story." Darkness prevented deputies from loading the pot into a department helicopter, Parker said. Aided by the U.S. Coast Guard, deputies guarded the shipment and then began to load the drugs at first light. It took several hours and two flights to load the helicopter and take the shipment to the mainland. The three men were arrested on suspicion of transportation of narcotics and booked at a federal detention fatality, authorities said.”

May 18, 2011 [SDET]: “Santa Catalina Island. A beachcomber in a lonely Santa Catalina Island cove wasn't looking for shells. Authorities said he was guarding 1,500 pounds of marijuana. Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies seized 31 bales of pot May 17 and arrested a Mexican citizen on suspicion of possessing and transporting marijuana, Capt. Jeff Donahue said May 18. 'This guy's looking at at least 10 years' in prison if he is convicted, Donahue said. The man was not immediately identified. A sheriff's deputy and a park ranger who were reportedly 'just hanging out' spotted the man at remote Little Harbor, on the west side of the island, Donahue said. The man went back to a cove where were blue tarpaulins and 'bales of something,' but when the authorities approached he tried to hide, the captain said. A helicopter was called to help deputies spot the suspect. He was finally found hiding in crevasses in a rock area. The plastic-wrapped bales turned out to be Mexican marijuana with an estimated street value of $1.5 million, officers said. A boat that apparently was used to land the marijuana bales was found on the north side of the island. It likely was forced there by bad weather, Donahue said. 'Obviously, ew had a lot of rain and storms in the past few days,' Donahue said. ;He was just waiting to be picked up.' Catalina draws boatloads of tourists, pleasure boaters, scuba divers and hikers from around the world. But when the weather's bad, it also attracts smugglers, forced to seek shelter, Donahue said. In April 2010, authorities seized 4,000 pounds of marijuana and arrested three men who claimed they were abandoned after paying a smuggler to bring them to the U.S. They were later sentenced to about 10 years in prison on drug charges. As the United States has strengthened security at the border, Mexican smugglers have turned to the sea, outfitting open panga boats to run up the coast from Baja California with cargoes of narcotics or illegal immigrants. 'It used to be to San Diego. Now, they're working their way up higher,' Donahue said.”

August 22, 2012 [NBCSan]: “Federal agents this week seized marijuana estimated to be worth $1 million and arrested seven men in what authorities say is the latest trend off the California coast — using sailboats as cover for smuggling operations. U.S. Customs agents discovered the suspected smuggling attempt after boarding a sailboat they had seen flashing its lights in the waters south of Catalina Island on Wednesday. Once aboard, the agents discovered three people and a loaded shotgun, a .40 caliber pistol, and night vision equipment, officials said. 'We are beginning to see this as a more common tactic: smugglers attempting to move contraband from open hull panga boats to recreational vessels, such as this sailboat,' Keley Hill, director of Marine Operations for Customs and Border Patrol in San Diego. 'The smugglers think that when the recreational vessels move to shore, it will blend in with legitimate boating traffic off the Southern California coastline and make it much more difficult for us to detect illegal activity. Suspecting the people aboard were about to rendezvous with another boat to attempt a drug swap, agents called a helicopter to scan the water for other boaters nearby. Helicopter pilots spotted a Mexican fishing boat about five miles away. During a chase, someone on board the boat could be seen dumping bales overboard, officials said. After a brief chase, the boat was intercepted. Agents recovered 130 packages of marijuana, weighing about 2,357 pounds, with an estimated street value of more than $1 million. Authorities arrested three U.S. citizens who were found on the sailboat and four Mexican nationals from the fishing boat. It's one in a string of cases in recent years -- a nearly daily occurrence -- in which boats are being found further north along the California coast ferrying both drugs and human cargo to evade a beefed-up law enforcement presence along the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said. So far this fiscal year, from Oct. 1, 2011 to Aug. 22, 2012, authorities have recorded more than 180 such smuggling cases in Southern California, up 16 percent from the same period in 2011, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Authorities have seized more than 110,000 pounds of narcotics this year, a more than four-fold increase over all of fiscal year 2011, Kice added. Officials have noted an upward trend for the last four years. In 2008, officials saw 45 such cases mostly in San Diego. Three years later, authorities saw 40 cases occurring along the Los Angeles coastal areas.”

Sightings in the area have dropped dramatically since then, but have re-emerged from time to time, with some abandoned pangas found further north along the shores of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. In July and September of 2013, two pangas, 35- and 20-footers, respectively, and both carrying marijuana were seized by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, according to a state report. And even if the number of boats has dropped off, their loads are still substantial. Coast Guard statistics provided to VICE show 13 panga cases (including seven interceptions) so far between fiscal year 2016 and 2017. From those, 22,931 pounds of marijuana valued at over $20.7 million were seized.

The origins of an abandoned almost 50-foot "super panga" found by crabber Travis Lobo in 2012 near Tajiguas Beach in Santa Barbara County pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel. Investigators from the US Department of Homeland Security traced the serial numbers from the boat's four, 350-horsepower outboard motors to a purchase made by Marcel Quintero, who is suspected of having ties to the cartel, according to a March 31 filing in the US District Court in the Central District of California. The presence of GPS devices, food wrappers, literature with Spanish writing, and fuel tanks containing gasoline are some of the tell-tale signs that a panga was used for smuggling, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office investigator Sergeant Marc Hammill, who has investigated the vessels since 2015. Once on shore, Hammill and the DEA both said, panga operators sometimes meet up with people connected to local gangs, who help distribute the contraband. "We're finding large amounts of weight," Hammill said. "It's almost become a standard now."”

Bales of marijuana found floating off Santa Catalina Island Tuesday, August 13, 2019

August 15, 2019 []: “Coast Guard finds 1300 pounds of marijuana floating near Catalina Island. Authorities found 1,300 pounds of marijuana wrapped in plastic floating in the sea near Santa Catalina Island on Tuesday. A bystander reported seeing what they believed to be narcotics floating near the island, said the U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday in a news release. The Coast Guard and coastal law enforcement crews rode boats into the area and found 43 bales of marijuana. The plastic-wrapped bales were transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which confirmed the bales consisted of marijuana weighing approximately 1,300 pounds and an estimated value of $1 million, the Coast Guard said. Federal investigators did not know where the bales came from and are continuing to investigate.”

Marijuana: Santa Cruz Island

June 3, 1976 [LAT]: “Four men were arrested and two tons of marijuana were seized when Customs officials boarded a sailboat off Santa Cruz Island, officials said. Sheriff's detectives in Ventura County said the marijuana probably was bound for the Ventura area from Mexico. The 51-foot craft, which was not identified, was escorted to Oxnard's Channel Islands Harbor and impounded. Two of the arrested men, John Ribando, 25, of Encinitas and George Challmen, 28, of Downey, were among 12 men arrested in an earlier suspected marijuana smuggling operation. The charges in that case were thrown out of court because of civil rights violations. The other men arrested in the latest case were Steve Odneal, 30, of Long Beach and Harold Bennett, 31, of Newport Beach.”

July 12, 1976 [SBNP]: “Raid nets 4 tons of marijuana. Two men were arrested last night, a third was in custody this afternoon and about four tons of marijuana were seized in a dramatic operation in a remote Santa Cruz Island cove by federal agents, the Coast Guard and sheriff's investigators. Jerome Hollander, public information officer for the U.S. Customs Service in San Diego, said today that Allen Richard Ketchum, 27, of 1108 Palomino Dr., and David Iroff, 30, Spring Valley, were taken into custody on federal charges about 11:30 p.m. Most of the marijuana allegedly being moved from Mexico and bound for the Southern California market, was seized on the island. About 3,500 pounds was seized aboard the two men's fishing boat, the Sebony, Hollander said. The boat was brought into Santa Barbara Harbor this morning.He said that the operation was conducted under the light of flares fired from the coast Guard cutter Point Judith, which assisted the narcotics agents. Hollander said Ketchum and Iroff were armed but surrendered without resistance. Sheriff's Lt. George Bregante said that the third man, who was not immediately identified, was on the island when officers moved in. He fled into the hills and this morning was taken aboard a private boat. The man was picked up by helicopter this afternoon and was to be brought back to the mainland for booking, Bregante said. He said the marijuana has a wholesale value of about $800,000 and a street price of "double or triple that." Also seized was an estimated four kilos of a white powder that will have to be analyzed first, "but it appears to be cocaine," he said.” [Marijuana haul leaves Navy Pier today by truck under guard after estimated four tons of marijuana was unloaded from the fishing boat Sebony at the harbor. A U.S. Customs spokesman said that the marijuana seizure last night at Santa Cruz Island ended an investigation that had begun in San Diego.]

July 13, 1976 [SBNP]: “Four tons of marijuana were found aboard a rented cabin cruiser on the west side of Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel as federal and local narcotics officers ended a three-month investigaiton with the arrests of three men, officials said. Two of the suspects were Allen R. Ketchum, 27, and David Iroff, 30, both of Santa Barbara. The third man was not immediately identified. Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Lt. George Bregante said investigators believe the marijuana was being moved to the island from Mexico for final distribution into Southern California. He said the drug cost the suspects $800,000 and they probably could have sold it for double or triple that amount.”

Marijuana: Santa Rosa Island

April 20, 2010 [1]: “A team of federal agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrested four Mexican citizens and seized over a ton of marijuana after sighting vessel wreckage strung along a beach on Santa Rosa Island. A U.S. Navy helicopter reported sighting a Mexican panga of a type typically used for smuggling narcotics and aliens in the Southern California region about 46 miles west of Pt. Loma on the night of March 4. 

 On March 6, U.S. Customs and Border Protection marine interdiction agents on a CBP Blackhawk helicopter discovered fuel canisters and wreckage from the panga on a beach on Santa Rosa Island. After the helicopter landed, the CBP marine interdiction agents scouted the area and discovered 46 bundles of marijuana weighing 2,448 pounds concealed by vegetation in a nearby canyon and four adult Mexican males hiding in nearby brush. The four men are awaiting arraignment before a magistrate judge for the alleged smuggling attempt.”

October 27, 2016 [KEYT News]: “SANTA ROSA ISLAND - Channel Islands National Park officials have issued a closure for Santa Rosa Island out of safety concerns for visitors after numerous bundles of marijuana were discovered on October 25. Authorities believe the discovery of contraband on the island is part of a smuggling attempt connected to the discovery of an abandoned smuggling boat, or panga boat, near Mariposa Reina over the weekend. Fuel containers were also retrieved from Santa Rosa Island. Law enforcement personnel from multiple agencies are conducting aerial and ground searches for any suspects that may still be on the island. “This closure, while unfortunate, is necessary to protect the public from potential harm,” said Channel Islands National Park Superintendent Russell Galipeau. “The National Park Service will reopen Santa Rosa Island as soon as the risk is mitigated.” Park Rangers located three campers on the island and transported them back to the mainland. They are not considered suspects. The closure will affect at least 73 visitors who had trips planned for the upcoming weekend.”

October 27, 2016 [Ventura Star]: “Officials have closed Santa Rosa Island until further notice after bundles of marijuana were found there Tuesday. Authorities said they believe the marijuana is linked to a maritime smuggling attempt. Santa Rosa, about 40 miles off the Ventura County coast, is part of Channel Islands National Park. Law enforcement officers from several agencies were conducting aerial and ground searches on the island looking for anyone associated with the suspected smuggling attempt. Because of the ongoing law enforcement activity and concerns for visitor safety, park officials decided to issue a temporary closure for the island, according to a statement released late Wednesday afternoon. “This closure, while unfortunate, is necessary to protect the public from potential harm,” said Russell Galipeau, superintendent of Channel Islands National Park. “The National Park Service will reopen Santa Rosa Island as soon as the risk is mitigated.” Rangers apparently took three campers who were on the island back to the mainland on a National Park Service boat Tuesday. The closure also likely will affect 73 people who were booked on an Island Packers trip to Santa Rosa this weekend.”

October 27, 2016 [Independent]: “Santa Rosa Island closed temporarily. Three campers were evacuated from Santa Rosa Island for their safety after park rangers found bundles of marijuana believed to be associated with contraband runners. The island has been closed to the public temporarily while federal and local law enforcement search by air and land for smugglers and to recover any contraband. Smuggler activity seems to have resumed recently, with a panga boat found on the Gaviota coast on October 23 after several were discovered earlier in January and March. About 73 visitors were scheduled for trips to the island this weekend with Island Packers, which have been cancelled as no landings are permitted. “It’s always unfortunate when we have to cancel,” said Alex Brodie, the fleet manager at Island Packers, “especially for the 40 or so campers who had weekend plans.” Santa Rosa Island is fairly large, at 84 square miles, and its terrain holds cliffs, steep canyons, and sea caves along the shoreline. The National Park staff has also left the island, said Yvonne Menard, a spokesperson for the Channel Islands National Park, and rangers remain on-island to assist in the search. An island was last shut down when smugglers rammed a Coast Guard ship in 2012, killing Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III. The incident occurred off Santa Cruz Island, which was searched, but no smugglers found.”

November 1, 2016 [VCS]: “Officials announced Tuesday that they will reopen Santa Rosa Island, which had closed last week after pot was found on shore. Federal and local law enforcement personnel said they recovered 44 bundles of marijuana — weighing close to 3,000 pounds — on the island, part of the Channel Islands National Park. The marijuana was believed to be linked to a maritime smuggling attempt, authorities said. A panga boat also was found abandoned on Gaviota beach in Santa Barbara County a few days earlier. On Tuesday, park officials announced that a search of the island has ended and Santa Rosa will reopen Wednesday. Over the past week, National Park Service rangers and other federal agencies conducted searches of the island about 40 miles off Ventura County by air and on the ground. No one related to the suspected smuggling attempt was found, officials said. After having to cancel trips to the island last weekend, Island Packers said Tuesday that it will resume its regularly-scheduled trips to and from Santa Rosa later this week.”