So far this year, agencies have captured 43,290 pounds of drugs in maritime smuggling events
REGION — Just before midnight, temperatures hung in the low 50s and a few clouds punctuated the February sky.
There wasn’t much to hinder visibility, though the night’s crescent moon wasn’t offering much in the way of illumination either.
The conditions that evening were as good as any for a maritime smuggling attempt — or for trying to prevent one.
On a seaside cliff in Carlsbad, Border Patrol agents scanned the coastline for any signs of something out of the ordinary — a flashlight signal or the silhouette of a boat skimming along the waves, or a van suspiciously parked near a beach access point.
“It’s kind of the typical cat and mouse game where you’re kind of looking for them while they’re looking for you,” said Michael Cariker, a Border Patrol supervisory agent.
As it happened, there were no maritime events that night.
Just two days before, there was an incident involving a jet ski on Silver Strand State Beach that resulted in three arrests. And two nights after that, two people were caught with almost 1,100 pounds of marijuana in a panga boat at Point Mugu in Ventura County.
The primary smuggling threat along the California coastline for the most part has remained the same over the years: smugglers in open fishing boats illegally transporting people and drugs into the U.S.
Yet as the land border with Mexico has become more secure, the number of maritime smuggling events has increased. To avoid law enforcement, smugglers are traveling farther out to sea and landing up and down California’s entire 840-mile coastline.
To repel this influx, Border Patrol is teaming up with other law enforcement agencies throughout the state and working to develop risk-based surveillance tactics driven by intelligence.
But agents know to an extent, there is only so much they can do.
Law enforcement agents have observed seafaring smuggling attempts in the state rise significantly since about 2008 and 2009, according to Border Patrol watch commander Jason Liebe.
In fiscal year 2009, law enforcement agents made 400 apprehensions and 49 seizures of contraband, which included 56,900 pounds of drugs, along the coast, according to statistics from ReCoM (Regional Coordinating Mechanism). ReCoM consists of agencies from San Diego to San Francisco including Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), as well as state and local partners.
In fiscal year 2010, ReCoM-reported apprehensions more than doubled to 867. Intercepted maritime events that year yielded 10 seizures that included 27,600 pounds.
The number of apprehensions and seizures has fluctuated over the years since, though remained well above those of fiscal year 2009. For the fiscal years from 2011 to 2013, ReCoM agencies counted 631,779, and 616 apprehensions as well as 122, 108, and 123 seizures, respectively.
ReCoM agencies have reported 147 apprehensions and 33 seizures so far, which have included about 43,290 pounds of drugs as of the fiscal year 2014.
While the number of maritime events has risen, smugglers’ methods have not changed.
Individuals who transport people and drugs are typically recruited by transnational criminal organizations, including Mexican drug cartels.
On average, they are paid between $5,000 and $10,000 per trip. For Mexican fishermen who are targeted, since they have their own boats, the payment is several times what they can make fishing in a year.
Most often the travelers are unarmed due to the greater consequences of bringing weapons into the country illegally.
“The prosecution, and the type of consequence for a subject who comes in with a weapon is significant,” said Cariker. “The amount of force that the law enforcement agencies in the area that are going to take towards these people if they have weapons, is going to be much greater. And I think they realize that. At least, we believe that.”
Most smugglers travel by panga boats, open fiberglass or wooden vessels, and communicate with associates on the beach with cell phones and flashlights.
“The pangas don’t really change that much. You know, there will be bigger ones, smaller ones, just depending on what they want to push that particular night,” Cariker said.
“I think if anything, (maritime smugglers have) gotten better at, for lack of a better term, is counter surveillance. They know we’re out there. They know we’re watching. And so they do they same.”
For years, Border Patrol has worked with the Coast Guard to detain individuals still out at sea. They follow up with the Department of Homeland Security for intelligence once investigations are completed.
Task forces in the county have concentrated on addressing overall border security trends and the workings of transnational criminal organizations.
But in light of increased maritime threats, Border Patrol has partnered and coordinated with other law enforcement agencies to enhance border security throughout San Diego County and across the state.
“I think (the other agencies) saw it as a national security threat. And these people were landing on American soil, on their beaches and in their communities,” Liebe added. “When you have boats landing in Del Mar, Solana Beach, Carlsbad, the local agencies take notice. The state agencies, state parks, the county sheriffs, they take notice to that. And they want to protect their own communities.”
Maritime security efforts not only aim to stop smuggling but also prevent the loss of life that can often accompany illicit ventures out at sea.
Cariker explained that the people hired to make cross-border trips don’t realize what they are getting into.
“They’ll be told, ‘Oh, it’s an hour. It’s just there, we’ll drop you off,’” he said.
“Well then that hour turns into 12 hours, 30 miles out. They can’t see land. They have no water. The engines could die on those pangas. There’s too many variables out there that they just don’t recognize. That’s what we’re really trying to avoid is that loss of life.”
When maritime activities spiked, Border Patrol helped create the Maritime Unified Command in 2008 to unite law enforcement agencies engaged in border security. That has since transformed into ReCoM.
ReCoM coordinates multi-agency operations, primarily aimed to thwart maritime security events, as well as collects and shares security intelligence among member agencies.
“Where we had just a few local agencies that we had been engaged with that had maritime domain to now, I believe that in San Diego County we have a little over 20 law enforcement agencies that are involved in maritime security,” Liebe said.
Another primary border security collaboration is the Department of Homeland Security’s nationwide Operation Stonegarden.
The program addresses the local crime and security repercussions of people and contraband entering the country illegally, according to Lt. John Maryon from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. Maryon heads the Operation Stonegarden activities in the county.
He explained that unlawful border crossings instigate crimes in border communities. People entering the country illegally are associated with breaking into houses and stealing cars in efforts to fend for themselves. Smuggled drugs lead to drug crimes and can support gang activity.
To address these spillover effects, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including all of the county’s police departments and Sheriff’s Department, work together to increase law enforcement presence along the border, conduct joint special operations, communicate and share information.
Their efforts for the most part involve “boots on the ground” saturation patrols in vulnerable areas that target criminals who are involved in smuggling and other cross-border crimes, according to Maryon.
Operation Stonegarden sponsored Operation Allied Shield IV, which targeted San Diego gangs known to support drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other cross-border crimes carried out by transnational criminal organizations.
More than 1,000 deputies, officers, federal and state agents performed parole and probation checks, traffic stops, and served search and arrest warrants during the two-day operation in late July 2013.
The operation resulted in 372 arrests, 323 citations, and 79 narcotics seizures with a total estimates street value of $455,000.
The Department of Homeland Security allocated $55 million for fiscal year 2013 to reimburse the other agencies for overtime, equipment and mileage used in Operation Stonegarden activities.
Maryon said that Operation Stonegarden acts as a force multiplier by uniting so many different agencies.
He added that when he started his law enforcement career 21 years ago, such collaboration and coordination did not exist.
“When I worked patrol, there was no commitment like that. I think Stonegarden has really brought things together,” he said.
Even outside of planned operations, such partnerships add extra sets of eyes on the lookout for suspicious activity along the shore.
Border Patrol agents said they frequently get tips from local police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and citizens about people staking out a beach to pick up smuggled people and contraband or unusual boats out on the water at odd hours.
To intercept illegal activity along the coast, Border Patrol agents in the county utilize intelligence to apply a risk-based approach to their surveillance activities.
Border Patrol collects intelligence via interviews with apprehended smugglers, intercepted communication from seized cell phones, tracing contraband back to its source, and other methods.
Agents then utilize the information to determine where and when to look for smuggling activity.
“We get a pretty good idea of… where (smugglers) are landing, so we allocate our resources to address a specific threat in the areas that we are vulnerable,” explained Liebe.
San Diego County’s Border Patrol branch consists of more than 40 agents who rotate on nightly patrol shifts along different stretches of beaches.
On the ground, they inspect the coastline and water with heat-sensing binoculars to detect people and incoming vessels.
But agents are also armed with information gathered by drones, manned multi-enforcement aircraft, radars on the beaches, and other surveillance technology. They remain in constant communication with other agents and other law enforcement officials with radios and cell phones.
According to local agents, their efforts in the county have proved effective.
“We are not seeing the number of events here in San Diego County as we were before… so that is a measure to our success,” Liebe said.
Though the number of local maritime events has declined, Border Patrol has observed smugglers traveling farther out to sea and farther north to make drops to avoid law enforcement.
“I think due to the success of the agents operating in this area, having that enforcement posture here, we’ve kind of pushed the traffic out,” Liebe said.
“We moved them further out into the water, we’ve made it more difficult for them. We know that it hits their pocket book as well in terms of logistics of what it takes for them to move their cargo further north to circumvent law enforcement.”
Despite Border Patrol’s continued efforts to thwart maritime smuggling and the accidental deaths that can come with it, agents acknowledge that there is only so much that can be done to prevent smuggling by sea.
California’s coastline is vast; the Pacific Ocean is expansive, and Border Patrol only has so much intelligence, so many tools and so many personnel.
Maritime smuggling is versatile and can come in many forms, said Liebe. An event can be one person swimming across the border, a couple of people dashing from one coast to another on a jet ski, a traveler slipping multiple people or pounds of drugs into a marina on a recreational vessel.
Agents cannot predict and intercept every single maritime smuggling event.
Dropping off a boatload of people or drugs into a waiting van on the beach can take minutes.
Sometimes events just slip under the radar.
There is no real way that Border Patrol can accurately determine how many illegal maritime events are occurring in the county and the rest of the state. Even harder is trying to determine what percentage law enforcement is apprehending.
“A lot of the times, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Liebe said.
Tony Cagala contributed to this report.
Correction: This article was updated on March 17 to correct the spelling of Jason Liebe’s name and reflect that most panga boats are made out of fiberglass, while some are made out of wood.