Page 2 of 2 Previous
Off California, smuggling vessels are typically spotted by planes from the Coast Guard or a federal agency, such as CBP, California National Guard or the Department of Defense. Coast Guard or CBP boats are then called to board suspicious vessels.
CBP is prohibited from firing on boats off the U.S. coast unless the pursuit begins within 12 miles of shore. The Coast Guard has no such constraints, so the onus has fallen on it as smugglers have ventured farther offshore.
The Sinaloa cartel has been loading marijuana bales vessels as far south as the Mexican port of Mazatlan and running them up northern Baja California after taking control of that state's coastal territory several years ago, said Michael Carney, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's assistant special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego.
Smugglers driving three-engine boats have been landing along remote coasts of Northern California, reaching as far as the beach town of Santa Cruz, which is about 350 nautical miles from the border city of San Diego. That's a shift from the one-engine drug skiffs seen landing for years in San Diego County.
Support vessels carry fuel and supplies to go longer distances, and smugglers transfer loads onto U.S.-owned pleasure craft, believing they are less likely to raise suspicion than a foreign boat.
Last month, a Coast Guard C-130 plane circled 200 feet over drug runners who jettisoned plastic-wrapped marijuana bales off Mexico's Baja California coast, about 175 miles south of the U.S. border. A Coast Guard inflatable boat closed in each time the three-engine vessel switched fuel tanks, according to Lt. Steven Davies, who monitored the hour-long, 30-mph chase from a nearby cutter.
By the time the four men were arrested, there were no drugs on board, but the Coast Guard fished 3,500 pounds of marijuana and 34 pounds of methamphetamine from the ocean.
Papp, speaking at a defense conference this month in San Diego, said that the Coast Guard's resources to patrol the high seas and intercept threats are "woefully inadequate at this point."
Its aging fleet of larger cutters is being replaced with faster, more capable National Security Cutters, but the number of high endurance cutters best suited for the high seas has dropped from a total of twelve to eight and will remain that way. The service's operating budget will return to 2012 levels this year, but future years are uncertain.
Meanwhile, demands for the Coast Guard's 240 cutters, some 1,775 boats, and about 200 aircraft are expanding with the warming arctic and its emerging fisheries, cruise ship routes and commercial traffic.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., has called for an evaluation of U.S. anti-narcotics efforts out of concern over the limited successes of the multibillion dollar war on drugs and wants more investment in prevention programs to curb the U.S. market for illegal drugs.
"Drug traffickers continue to find new ways to circumvent our laws," Engel said. "Unfortunately, Congress's draconian budget cuts have made the Coast Guard's ability to collect intelligence on and interdict drug traffickers increasingly difficult."
In 2013, the service lost one of its own to traffickers who rammed their 30-foot boat into the small craft of Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, 34, near Santa Cruz Island off Los Angeles.
Horne's death drove home the dangers of the war on drugs at sea, said Petty Officer 2nd Class William Pless, 28.
"You never know what you are going to encounter," said Pless, his gun at his side as he looked into the gray mist hovering over the Pacific waters on a recent evening, miles from the Mexican border.