Last week’s big drug bust off the coast of San Diego stands as a cold reminder of the power of the panga boat in smuggling contraband to the U.S.
While the Coast Guard caught this one (201 bales of marijuana and two smugglers), there are many other pangas that evade detection, dropping their cargo and then left abandoned on California beaches.
These small boats have wide bottoms, which enable them to take on heavy loads, can navigate shallow waters and can run right up to shore. And because they sit low in the water and often have sides painted blue, they are hard to spot in open waters or pick up on radar. Originally designed for fishermen, the panga is so efficient that it has become the boat of choice of Somali pirates.
Pangas are out in fore the Pacific, pushing their drug trade farther north from San Diego to as far as San Francisco. They are literally “running around” the Coast Guard there, Rear Adm. William “Dean” Lee said at a recent hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee. Federal officials told the panel that the panga drug trade poses one of the biggest maritime threats to the U.S.
The panga drug trade started about six years ago, confined mostly to short distance cross-border smuggling from northern Mexico into the San Diego area. But with tougher law enforcement on land, smuggling has moved increasingly offshore.
Now smugglers are using larger, more powerful pangas up to 50 feet long to travel longer distances up the California coast. Randolph Alles, head of the Office of Air and Marine at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), told the subcommittee that of 243 smuggling incidents reported in the San Diego sector during the last fiscal year, 81 involved pangas, which carried 93,240 lbs. of marijuana.
The CBP and Coast Guard are cracking down, increasing surveillance and airtime patrols, including use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But there’s still nothing like the eyes and ears of mariners, and the Coast Guard is asking for their help. If mariners spot pangas off the California coast, they are advised to report it immediately to the nearest Coast Guard station.