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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 8th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 5 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 5

State report highlights Santa Barbara County as a drug trafficking route

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

Panga boats aren’t classified as anything more than fishing vessels, but they’re efficient, low-profile, under-the-radar beasts people are using to sneak farther and farther north along the Pacific Coast in search of new beaches to storm with illegitimate Mexican cartel-associated business.

More often than not, the panga cargo smuggled along the West Coast entails drugs—mostly marijuana, and sometimes methamphetamine—but it can also include people who are eventually forced into indentured servitude or prostitution.

At up to 40-feet long, the boat is just one way transnational criminal organizations have tried to work around law enforcement crackdowns on more traditional trafficking methods, such as simply stuffing a truck full of illegal items and driving it either through a border crossing or under it, with the help of a tunnel. Those little steel- or aluminum-hulled boats with motors hanging on the back are a sign that the Golden State is a hub for illegal activity entering the United States.

According to a recent report from the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the state is an entry point for 70 percent of the methamphetamine supply in the United States and almost all of the Mexico-produced supply of marijuana, meth, heroin, and cocaine.

Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County are named as two of the main trafficking corridors in the report. Both counties hopped on board the illegal portals list in 2012, which is also a year that coincides with reports of Sinaloa Cartel presence in both counties. Monterey County arrived on the known trafficking and Sinaloa Cartel presence lists in 2013.

“Mexican drug cartels, particularly Sinaloa, have been most successful in embedding themselves into the fabric of our urban communities by forming alliances with prison and street gangs for protection and distribution of illicit drugs,” the report states.

Basically, the cartels get the drugs into the United States, and street and prison gangs make sure they get picked up, distributed, and sold. Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Kelly Hoover said law enforcement agencies know of 16 street gangs that operate throughout the county, with an estimated total of 2,000 members.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the majority of gang activity in the county is related to narcotics. In 2013, the county seized more than 5,000 pounds of marijuana and 2,500 grams of crystal meth. Although not all drugs in the county arrive via the Pacific fishing-boat express, some do. Since 2010, at least 40 panga boats yielding more than 28,000 pounds of seized marijuana have been intercepted in Santa Barbara County.

Since that first panga boat was discovered, the county has become more adept at working with other law enforcement agencies to find and intercept the small boats. Brown said when pangas first breached county shorelines, law enforcement only discovered them after they were empty. It wasn’t really anything that the department had dealt with before.

“There’s a number of beaches located very, very close to the highway,” Brown said. “So we were faced with this dilemma.”

The dilemma was figuring out how to combat something new with limited capabilities. The department reached out and helped form a task force with multiple federal agencies. Brown wouldn’t describe the tactics currently used to combat the panga problem, but he did say that law enforcement can now get to the boats before they get to shore.

“Before this, we only knew about the ones that had already been abandoned,” Brown said. “It was obvious that we needed and obtained aviation and maritime efforts through the [U.S.] Coast Guard.”

As law enforcement starts to zero in on how to combat something such as pangas, criminal organizations have a tendency to change their tactics. Brown said that’s why boats are now being found on beaches as far north as Monterey County.

Mexican law enforcement started cracking down on their country’s cartels, and the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was arrested in February after leading authorities on a chase through underground tunnels between his hideouts in Mazatlan. The attorney general’s report said there is concern that the power vaccuum left in Guzman’s absence will cause an uptick in violence that could spill over into California and other parts of the United States.

Brown said he doesn’t think it will affect the county. While collaboration among gangs and Mexican cartels is partially responsible for narcotics activity on the Central Coast, the majority of the county’s gang problems and associated violence are locally based. But he added that there are very few instances of serious violence within the county and those instances are decreasing.

In 2013, 333 violent crimes were committed and there were 348 violent crimes committed in 2012; 400 were committed in 2010. There was one murder in the county during 2013, and it was a gruesome one. Anthony Ibarra, a 28-year-old Santa Maria man, was found in a heap in the back of a U-Haul truck in Orcutt. He was tortured and beaten before being killed and dumped. Law enforcement arrested 11 suspects in association with the crime, and each suspect had a gang enhancement added to whatever else they were charged with.

“We haven’t seen the level of violence that they’ve seen in other countries,” Brown said. “It should be a cause of concern for all of us to make sure that these transnational criminal organizations don’t get a toehold here.”

 

Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.