The U.S. Border Patrol Asks Boaters to Help Catch Smugglers

Border Patrol Agents want California boaters to report any and all suspicious vessels off the coast.

March 14, 2013

Help Catch Smugglers at Sea

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection boat (background) pursues drug smugglers (foreground) off the California coast. The Border Patrol asks California boaters to be on the lookout for any suspicious craft and report them by calling 800-854-9834. Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The U.S. Border Patrol needs you, especially if you boat off the coast of California. Border Patrol Agent Ernie Arellano asked me to help get the word out to boaters – be on the lookout for suspicious activities at sea.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in smuggling activity in the ocean waters off California,” Arellano said. “Drug and human smuggling across the border, all controlled by the Mexican cartel, seems to be moving farther and farther north.”

While sea-born smuggling activities were initially confined to southern California waters, there’s evidence that smuggling boats are running as far north as San Simeon on the central California coast, according to Arellano.


For the most part, the boat of choice is a panga. This is a simple outboard-powered fiberglass craft ranging from 20 to 40 feet in length. The larger ones are known as super pangas.

These boats are not particularly common north of the Mexican border, so sighting any panga off the California coast is cause for suspicion. Also, the pangas are known to travel in pairs, one carrying the drugs or human cargo, the other carrying jugs of gasoline for the trip. Most of the ocean runs across the border take place at night.

Recently, smugglers have begun using less-obvious craft – more-common U.S. recreational boats such as center-consoles. These are also used as transfer vessels. Smugglers run pangas north, transfer the contraband at an offshore location to a less-suspicious boat, which runs the cargo into a harbor.


Arellano described signs of suspicious recreational craft, including:

1. A shoddy, ill-equipped boat with a new top-of-the-line outboard or multiple outboards.

2. A boat riding low in the water, including boats that seem extraordinarily bow-heavy.


3. Heavy scuffing or rub marks on the side of the boat, an indication that it is being used as a transfer vessel.

4. Unlit, unregistered, overcrowded boat.

5. An inexperienced crew.


It’s important that boaters refrain any interdiction efforts on their own, as the smugglers are known to resort to desperate and violent acts when confronted. A member of the U.S. Coast Guard was killed recently when a smuggler rammed his panga into a Coast Guard launch off California’s Channel Islands.

Arellano has asked boaters to note the location of suspicious vessels and then report them by calling the Border Patrol’s Joint Harbor Operation Center at 800-854-9834.


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