Does ‘Smuggler’s Corridor’ Now Extend to South America?
By: Anthony Brazos | Thursday, April 30, 2009 5:04:00 PM
Last updated: Thursday, April 30, 2009 5:04:00 PM
Authorities step up patrols and urge boaters to stay vigilant after latest rash of smuggling incidents.
While local authorities struggle to deal with a surge in smuggling attempts by boats along the so-called offshore “Smuggler’s Corridor” between Ensenada and Del Mar, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard interdiction teams are working off Baja California and the west coast of South America to stem the flow of narcotics closer to the source.
In recent weeks, bales of marijuana have washed up on local beaches, a Coast Guard patrol boat 4 miles off Mission Beach intercepted a vessel containing 640 pounds of pot, and another Coast Guard vessel rescued 21 suspected illegal migrants overcrowded onto a 25-foot panga 28 miles west of Del Mar.
“I can’t even make an educated guess what’s behind the increase,” Coast Guard Public Affairs Petty Officer Jetta Disco told The Log earlier this year. “I don’t know what it’s like in Mexico or how bad it’s getting over there. I’ve talked to other agencies such as CBP; the fantastic job they’re doing (blocking illegal entry landside) seems to be leading to an increase of (waterborne) smuggling attempts.”
About halfway down the Baja Peninsula, 60 miles west of Isla Cedros, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter intercepted a vessel laden with 8 tons of marijuana. And according to recently released reports, U.S. Navy and Coast Guard patrol boats in the Eastern Pacific off Colombia and Guatemala intercepted a trio of semi-submersible self-propelled submarines containing tons of cocaine -- destined, in all likelihood, for the United States.
The concern for recreational boaters who cruise through Smuggler’s Corridor is that they may unknowingly be sharing the waterways with dangerous criminals willing to go to extremes to protect a valuable cargo of illicit drugs. Some along the waterfront fear that it is just a matter of time until an unlucky boater winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Fortunately for boaters, there are more patrol boats keeping watch in the waters off San Diego than ever before. While in the past, Smuggler’s Corridor might have been sporadically patrolled by the Coast Guard and a couple of other agencies -- none of which was particularly outfitted to communicate with one another -- the present day San Diego Marine Task Force is composed of officers and agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection offices of Air/Marine and Border Patrol, San Diego Harbor Police, Chula Vista Police Department and Coronado Police Department.
“The integration of personnel, resources and prosecution efforts clearly demonstrates a focused, layered enforcement approach to prevent any threat from entering our coastal borders,” said Michael Fisher, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s San Diego sector.
Surfer Finds Bales of Pot
Before dawn on March 18, a surfer walking to the beach from San Diego’s 11th Street noticed six large burlap bags cached along the trail. He then saw two men carrying another bag.
According to published reports, when the surfer asked them men what they were doing, they said something in Spanish, dropped the bag and ran away. The surfer contacted authorities, who discovered approximately 400 pounds of marijuana in several bags in the vicinity.
Authorities could not locate the men. It is not known if they had successfully loaded additional contraband from a vessel into their vehicle before being interrupted. Authorities found no trace of the boat believed to have been used to drop off the men and the bales of marijuana.
Two Men, One Fishy Tale
On the afternoon of Mar. 28, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) interceptor Midnight Express stopped a fishing vessel approximately 4 miles west of Mission Bay.
The two U.S. citizens on board claimed they were spending their Saturday doing a bit of fishing. When CBP agents boarded the 27-foot vessel, they discovered about 640 pounds of marijuana hidden throughout. The men, ages 21 and 37, were arrested and the boat was impounded.
21 Aboard 25-Footer
Fishing was not the order of the day for the operators of a 25-foot panga discovered disabled and adrift 28 miles west of Del Mar March 19. The traditional outboard-powered Mexican fishing skiff was loaded with 21 suspected illegal immigrants when discovered by the 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Haddock.
The alleged migrants were safely taken aboard and transferred to the custody of CBP agents. The panga was towed to Coast Guard Station San Diego and impounded.
Eye in the Sky
A pair of sharp eyes aboard a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules patrol aircraft reportedly led to the undoing of a major smuggling operation approximately 300 miles south of the U.S./Mexican border.
The incident began when observers aboard the four-engine aircraft spotted a suspicious vessel approximately 60 miles west of Isla Cedros (Cedros Island), which is a very popular destination for U.S. charter boats carrying anglers and divers. A nearby Coast Guard cutter was diverted to investigate.
The cutter Aspen launched an interceptor boat with a law enforcement team aboard and approached the suspect vessel. The suspect vessel fled while its crew allegedly chucked bales of marijuana overboard. The vessel finally yielded: The crew was detained and the contraband collected.
A Mexican navy patrol boat arrived on scene and took into custody all four suspected smugglers, a sample of the contraband and the suspects’ vessel.
The Aspen crew, aided by the C-130, remained on the scene and recovered bales of marijuana from the water. All told, 16,588 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $15 million were collected and transported to San Diego. The contraband was offloaded at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal and impounded.
“The crew did an outstanding job,” said Cmdr. Steven Wittrock, Aspen’s commanding officer. “We had outstanding coordination among all the facets: the C-130 from Sacramento, Aspen’s crew, MSST Galveston, the district communication center and the Mexican navy.”
Sub Scuttle SNAFU
A string of incidents recently made public underscores that the term “Smuggler’s Corridor” can include almost any navigable water in the Eastern Pacific.
According to a Mar. 25 Coast Guard release, on Jan. 15, the San Diego-based cutter Chase intercepted a blue, self-propelled semi-submersible vessel loaded with nearly 15,000 pounds of cocaine, approximately 150 miles northwest of the Colombia-Ecuador border.
The encounter was the third within nine days in the vicinity.
Apparently frustrated in their attempts to ship illicit cargo by land, cocaine smugglers have taken to constructing elaborate, expensive and dangerous-to-operate self-propelled semi-submersible submarines to ferry their drugs northward.
When Chase neared the 50-foot semi-submersible, all four crewmen aboard climbed out onto the sub’s deck. The men voluntarily boarded the cutter’s chase boat and appeared as though they were waiting for something to happen. It never did.
Normally, the moment semi-submersible operators notice authorities, they begin scuttling procedures by opening specially installed valves that allow large amounts of seawater to enter the bilges. This rapid scuttling normally helps thwart prosecution by sending the evidence to the sea floor, where it is not practical to recover.
Scuttling also forces drug interdiction agents to shift their focus from recovering evidence to an often-fabricated search-and-rescue operation. As the sub sinks, crewmen usually jump overboard, which often helps buy enough time to allow the sub to sink to the bottom.
But the scuttling attempt apparently failed in the Jan. 15 encounter.
“As the minutes passed, the semi-submersible did not change its presentation to the water or appear to be sinking,” the Coast Guard stated. “The smug semi-submersible crew looked more nervous by the minute even as the Coast Guard crew grew excited as it became apparent the semi-submersible was not flooded and would be safe to board.”
After determining the submarine was stable, the Chase crew boarded the vessel. Inside they found three compartments: an engine room and a control room aft, and a 30-foot-long cargo area forward. A hatch leading to the cargo area was sealed with 28 bolts.
When the hatch came off, one of the senior boarding party members cried out over the radio, “Touchdown!”
The forward compartment was crammed with 199 50-pound bales of cocaine. Between the big bales were wedged 2,293 kilogram-size bricks of the illicit drug.
In a press conference, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen emphasized how unusual it was that the sub’s scuttling operation failed.
“This has been a knotty problem for us in the past,” Allen said. “These vessels scuttle themselves when we approach them. It’s very difficult for us to pull the contraband out and have successful prosecution.”
It is hard to estimate how many such vessels have successfully used South America’s Smuggler’s Corridor. Semi-submersible self-propelled submarines are extremely hard to detect because of their low radar profile and camouflaged paint scheme. Often referred to as “Sasquatch of the Pacific,” because they are rarely seen and almost never apprehended, these subs have emerged as one of the prevailing smuggling threats in the Eastern Pacific.
The 7.5-ton load of cocaine confiscated from the blue 50-foot semi-submersible was brought aboard Chase to San Diego, along with the four suspects. The cocaine was impounded and the suspects were arrested.
According to calculations from the U.S. Department of Justice Web site, 7.5 tons of cocaine might have a street value of as much as $300 million.
Even in instances where scuttling operations are successful, future prosecution efforts will be made easier due to passage of legislation by Congress that makes the operation of a self propelled semi-submersible submarine in international waters a violation of U.S. law.
“We now have another option when we can’t get the contraband before they scuttle the submersibles,” Allen said.
This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Log Newspaper. All or parts of the information contained in this article might be outdated.