Maritime Smuggling On The Rise

Maritime smuggling on the rise

By Vik Jolly
The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, CA), April 16, 2010

Dana Point, CA — Maritime smuggling of both humans and contraband is on the rise, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In the fiscal year ending in September 2009, federal and other law enforcement authorities in San Diego arrested 430 illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens for drug and human smuggling, compared with 230 in the previous fiscal year, according to the agency's statistics.

Among other incidents, these apprehensions included smugglers towing a surfboard with marijuana, illegal immigrants on jet skis, three U.S. teens with about half a ton of marijuana on their boat, a panga with 23 illegal immigrants on board, and a small Zodiac boat with 10 duffel bags with marijuana on the deck, an agency spokeswoman said.

In the past week alone there have been five maritime smuggling attempts in Southern California, including one in Orange County, thwarted by immigration agents working with local authorities.

Speaking about the history and current state of the Border Patrol hosted by the Dana Point Boaters Association on Thursday night, Ivan C. Cole Jr., the senior patrol agent and community relations officer at the San Clemente Border Patrol station, asked those in attendance to be the eyes and ears of enforcement officials.

The Border Patrol is one of three branches of Customs and Border Protection.

'You guys are out there,' Cole said. 'We are asking you help us out if you guys see any type of suspicious activity.'

Cole asked boaters not to try to stop vessels, but simply report the activity to law enforcement.

About 30 people attended the talk.

'I don't think we think enough about (maritime smuggling) and we should,' said Rodger Beard, president of the Dana Point Boaters Association. 'There's a lot of water out there and there are a lot of boaters out there than there are officials.'

Mike Metz, an association board member and longtime boater, said he is surprised that maritime smuggling is up given the weak U.S. economy and lack of jobs in the country.

'If anything, it'd have dropped' he'd have thought, he said.

Long haul boaters like him think about smuggling and pirates more than day boaters, said Metz, who recalled alerting the U.S. Coast Guard twice in the last decade after he spotted suspicious boats.

'I am sensitive to it and look for it,' he said. 'Those who have been boating a long time know about it.'

Jackie Dizdul, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection in San Diego, said there are a number of possible reasons why smuggling of people and contraband most often marijuana is on the rise.

An increase in enforcement agents and infrastructure is one of them, she said.

'Basically, as we make it more difficult to cross illegally into the United States, people are going to attempt what they think is going to work,' she said. When illegal land border crossings are made difficult, 'the next place to attempt is the sea.'

'The important thing that we hope people recognize is that smugglers place value on money and that is the only thing they place value on,' Dizdul said. 'These are criminals.'

The illegal water entries into the United States are perilous, often times done in overloaded small boats, in cold weather and rough seas.

'Any time you have anyone attempting to cross illegally and putting their lives in the hands of smugglers, it's dangerous,' Dizdul said.

Maritime smuggling also poses a threat to national security.

'When you come across someone, you don't have any background information on them, you don't know who they are,' Dizdul said. Officials work from information they learn upon contact to see what other threats are posed by those in custody.

Often times, agents come across people who are criminals and wanted in both their home country and in the United States, she said.

The latest smuggling incident of the last week occurred early Thursday at Swami's Beach in Encinitas, when agents arrested eight Mexican nationals after they illegally entered the country aboard a smuggling boat along the San Diego County coastline, according to a Customs and Border Protection news release.

The seven men and one woman were arrested and taken to the Imperial Beach Border Patrol Station for processing.

In a Wednesday incident, Border Patrol agents spotted a panga-type boat as it approached the coast of Surf Beach, near San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, according to a news release.

As the agents approached the boat four people got off onto shore, but were quickly apprehended. Agents also notified Customs and Border Patrol Marine agents and Orange County Sheriff's deputies to intercept the boat.

As Sheriff's Harbor Patrol officials made contact with the boat, it turned to shore again and this time dropped off 19 additional people who are suspected of entering the country illegally, the news release said.

Officials arrested a total of 23 people 17 men and six women on suspicion of entering the country illegally and took them for questioning and processing, authorities said.

All 23 people are from Mexico, the news release said.

And, authorities stopped three separate maritime smuggling attempts last weekend in San Diego County, arresting 24 illegal immigrants and one U.S. citizen.