There’s no good time to have your boat break down at sea, as every sailor knows.
But if you’re a captain working for a drug cartel, with a couple of tons of illegal narcotics aboard your vessel and in U.S. waters, an engine malfunction likely means an end to your days on the open ocean and a long stay in prison.
That was the case for a couple of luckless Mexican mariners last May, when the Coast Guard found them adrift near San Diego, California, carrying a cargo of about 4,000 pounds of marijuana, worth about $6 million on the street.
It was a huge haul for authorities—and massive bad luck for the bootleggers—but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Running drugs north from Mexico by boat is big business for the cartels. And dope isn’t the only outlawed cargo smuggled into the U.S. on the high seas.
Just last week, in the early morning hours of August 24, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents apprehended a dozen illegal immigrants as they attempted to flee from a pair of small boats onto San Diego area beaches.
Such arrests and shipment seizures are part of a growing trend for the Coast Guard and Border Patrol agents working the beach beat in Southern California.
As the Southwest land border becomes more secure, “transnational criminal organizations have attempted to circumvent this security by smuggling in the maritime environment,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Ralph DeSio tells The Daily Beast.. And it could get a lot worse, especially if President Donald Trump has his way and “The Wall” gets built on the Mexican frontier.
Overall, where narcotics are concerned, far more contraband transport takes place on the ocean than by land. In fact, more than 90 percent of smuggled drugsare shipped by sea, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. For example, the Coast Guard reports seizing 200 metric tons of cocaine at sea in 2016, compared to just 82 metric tons intercepted on land in the continental U.S.
A new study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution pokes holes in the notion that The Wall will cap the flow of drugs and illegal migrants—and includes a special warning for the Golden State.
“Even if the land border were to become much more secure, that would only intensify the trend toward smuggling goods as well as people via boats that sail far to the north, where they land on the California coast,” writes Brookings Senior Foreign Policy Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown.
The known numbers of boat people are small for now. But the patterns of seaborne migration elsewhere in the world suggest the shape of things to come. In the 1990s, tens of thousands of Haitians made it to the shores of Florida, leading to a military intervention. In Europe, hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa have made their way across the Aegean, across the Mediterranean, and along the Atlantic coast over the last decade.
What we see now in California is a trickle by comparison, but one that is growing, perhaps due to land routes becoming more arduous for migrants. Coast Guard records from the first half of 2017 show 116 arrests of suspected illegal immigrants, a 74 percent increase over last year.
The smugglers come in small boats and promise to land the migrants on the U.S. coast—if all goes well, Felbab-Brown at Brookings tells The Daily Beast. “But if things go badly they might just abandon them at sea.”
Meet the Fleet
The workhorse vessel for Mexican smugglers is called a panga. These are open-hulled, wooden or fiberglass boats, generally equipped with one or two outboard motors. Often used by traditional fishermen, the pangas have shallow drafts that allow them to be pulled right up on shore for loading and unloading cargo—a feature that makes them ideal for use on rural beaches without docks. The most common departure spot for the run up the U.S. West Coast is in Baja California.
“They leave from a port; it can even be a small village, or remote coastal areas where the Mexican government has very minimal control and there are many criminal groups,” says Felbab-Brown.
The U.S. Coast Guard reports seizing 22,931 pounds of marijuana, valued at more than $20.7 million, solely from panga boat raids in fiscal year 2016 and the first half of 2017.
In addition to the hardy pangas, cartels also use motor yachts, sailboats, sport-fishing craft, and go-fast boats.
“Smugglers’ tactics vary in almost every possible way including load amount, content, methods, and time,” says Lt. Cmdr. Matt Kroll of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Some vessels are underway for a few hours and others for a few days, depending on the landing destination.”
Once the cartel crews reach the landing site: “Commonly, these vessels are beached on U.S soil near an awaiting pick-up vehicle and crew,” Kroll says.
Marijuana remains the most popular for bulk smuggling shipments by sea. But other narcotics travel that way too. Coast Guard interdiction efforts off the California coast have netted at least half a billion dollars’ worth of cocaine so far this year, and some 30 drug traffickers have been arrested.
The smugglers’ armada isn’t limited to just small craft. A recent study by the addiction treatment center Detox.net examined more than 150 U.S. court cases to assess how contraband enters the country. That report found cargo ships and cruise liners account for about 12 percent of all vehicles used by drug smugglers.
Robert J. Bunker, a professor with the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College who specializes in the cartels, says traffickers often employ human drug mules (swallowers) “to carry the drugs internally from Mexican resorts by cruise ships as you would with passenger flights into the U.S.”
Another tactic is to make use of “cruise line employees that can smuggle drugs for you,” Bunker tells The Daily Beast. For instance, an employee-run smuggling ring was discovered by U.S. authorities operating aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines in 2015.
Commercial storage containers aboard large cargo ships are also highly effective for hiding banned substances. Smugglers “mislabel the manifest and hide the drugs in the shipload of goods,” Bunker says. Defeating such methods “would require the [cargo] to be disassembled to find the drugs which is very time consuming process that our port cargo inspectors don’t have time to do.”
Criminals lacking access to U.S. border plazas, cartel controlled staging areas that often are the scene of bloody turf battles, are likely to pursue marine shipping routes.
“The advantage of using the sea over land routes is that the urbanized border points of entryand desolate regions of the border fence are avoided,” says Bunker, author of the book Narcoterrorism and Impunity in the Americas. This allows “the plaza border cities in Mexico to be bypassed if hostilities are in effect or a deal for a plaza use tax can’t be reached.”
The flagship of cartel marine operations is what Bunker calls a “narcosubmarine,” which can travel virtually undetected beneath the ocean’s surface. Such craft are most often used to ferry cocaine north from South America.
“These are typically being built in mangrove swamps by the rivers in remote construction sites on the Pacific Coast in Colombia,” Bunker explains.
Some of these are “semi-submersibles” that are meant to be pulled behind another craft, riding low in the water to avoid detection. Others are strapped to the hull below the waterline. But there are more sophisticated versions complete with oxygen systems for crews.
“Narcosubs don’t usually make landfall,” says Bunker. Instead, “small boats meet them offshore either in Central America or Mexico.” So far all of the captured narcosubs have been found to originate in Colombia—currently the world’s leading cocaine producer—but Brookings’ Felbab-Brown says that might soon change.
“When Sean Penn did his notorious interview with El Chapo, [Chapo] boasted in that interview that he also had submarines,” she says. “They haven’t been caught yet in U.S. waters but there’s nothing stopping [Mexican cartels] from developing their own submarines—or buying them from Colombia—and using them to travel from the coast of Mexico into California or Florida.”
While smugglers take enormous care to protect valuable drug loads, far less concern is given to the safety of human cargo.
“Transnational Criminal Organizations have no regard for the lives of the people they smuggle, and this [seaborne] tactic is extremely dangerous,” says USCB agent DeSio. “Smugglers often overcrowd small, open vessels, and in the cases where personal flotation devices are provided, they are often unsafe and insufficient.”
Conditions like weather and visibility are seemingly not important considerations to human smugglers.
“They put an emphasis on profits over their victims’ safety by placing them in unpredictable and unsafe conditions,” DeSio says.
Felbab-Brown agrees. She estimates the price of a crossing is about the same as going overland (as much as $10,000) and also says conditions for California-bound migrants will likely get worse as time goes by.
“If more people start going by boat, at some point you’ll have a lot more coast guard action, so you might see something similar to North-African migrants in the Mediterranean,” she says. Under such circumstances, the cartel smugglers “might just push people in the sea and let them drown, or make them swim a considerable distance.
“It’s in the early stages, but if it escalated, then you could get a situation where smugglers become enormously callous.”
And in those circumstances, as we have seen in Europe, a huge moral dilemma is created. Who rescues the drowning migrants? And what happens to those who are saved? California is resisting the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, and has a number of so-called “sanctuary cities” where local police refuse to do the work of Federal immigration agents.
According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Virginia Kice, the smugglers’ range along the U.S. Pacific coast is already expanding, despite the authorities’ best efforts.
"As law enforcement in San Diego County became more adept at detecting these vessels, the smugglers started landing on beaches in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties north of Los Angeles,” says Kice.
“When law enforcement then banded together to increase the risk of interdiction, the smugglers began taking their vessels farther out to sea and farther up the coast, in some cases all the way up to beaches in the Bay Area."
Felbab-Brown thinks the cartels’ current strategy hints at their long-term goals.
“Over time,” she says, “they’ll be able to expand the range of the delivery system to include the whole U.S. coastline.”