The plunging cliffs and secluded shoreline of the Palos Verdes Peninsula have long attracted residents to make their homes in the welcoming hills of this quiet community. But The Hill has also recently caught the attention of a different group of visitors—smugglers who use its beaches as drop-off points for drugs, and possibly people.
Human and drug smuggling incidents that might once have been more common farther south have popped up on the radars of multi-agency task forces as they work to curtail a recent increase in maritime smuggling in Los Angeles County, including Palos Verdes.
Incidents near in Rancho Palos Verdes, where about 4,000 pounds of marijuana were recovered and 13 people were arrested, add to a list of multiple boat sightings—small fishing vessels called pangas—and landings in and around the PV area.
In 2011, the recorded multiple smuggling incidents like these: An found near , some fuel cans the only sign of what was probably a long journey for its passengers; a with 200 pounds of marijuana discovered near Point Vicente’s fishing access; and a found along the Palos Verdes Estates shoreline, among others (click here for an interactive map of panga landings in Palos Verdes).
Southern California sightings of the small, open-bowed, outboard-powered fishing vessels, often used in Mexico, Central America, parts of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, usually serve as a warning sign to law enforcement authorities, who say the boats are "automatically suspect."
The surge in smuggling events along the PV coast has calmed in recent months, with no incidents reported since late November of last year, but local, state and federal agencies are still working to halt the smugglers’ operations, while government officials try to determine the best way to respond to this new threat so close to home.
As smuggling groups adapted to heavier law enforcement presence farther south in the San Diego area, they began to depend on riskier methods to get their cargo into the U.S.
While smugglers once would have planned on landing closer to the border, they’re now realizing “they have to go that extra nautical mile,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations in L.A.
Often armed with only a GPS device and a cell phone, smugglers, typically coming from Mexico, take the small panga boats out west up to 100 miles into the Pacific Ocean before heading north and inland. Once they reach the shore, narcotics are typically transferred to “load vehicles” and then transported to stash houses in the greater L.A. area, according to the complaint affidavit filed in the Abalone Cove case.
The boats—usually loaded with people or drugs—are in for what can be a dangerous journey, Arnold said.
“The biggest challenge is these panga smugglers, when they’re smuggling human beings, they’re willing to take such risks, go so far out to sea in a vessel really not equipped for that environment,” he said. “Smugglers don’t care. To them, [human cargo is] a commodity, they’re worth whatever money they get paid to smuggle them into the country.”
It’s unclear just how many smuggling attempts end badly, with boats unable to make it back to shore, said Adam Eggers, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class.
“It’s extremely dangerous," he said. "You usually don’t take a 20-foot boat out on the open ocean. ... We don’t know how many (smugglers) are trying and don’t even make it.”
The “extra nautical mile” pushes them farther north, into Los Angeles County and Palos Verdes, and has led to a “huge increase” in smuggling incidents, Arnold said.
Last year marked the beginning of an escalation in maritime smuggling events, including all boat landings and sightings reported along coasts farther north. In fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011, there were seven events documented in Los Angeles County, compared to only one event each in fiscal years 2010 and 2009, according to ICE statistics.
In Orange County, 12 events were documented in fiscal year 2011, compared to seven in 2010 and one in 2009. Ventura County’s numbers shot up from zero in 2010 to seven in 2011.
So far in fiscal year 2012, Los Angeles County has already seen eight smuggling incidents, the same as Orange County, according to ICE data through Feb. 22.
“There’s been a definite increase in these panga landings,” Arnold said.
Until last year, Lomita Station Lt. Blaine Bolin wasn’t used to dealing with smuggling incidents in Palos Verdes.
“[In 2011] is when it really hit the radar for us,” he said. “Prior to this past year, it really didn’t come to our attention. … The landings were always farther south.”
Sgt. Dave Rozas, from the Lomita Station, hasn’t seen anything like the amount of recent local smuggling incidents in his 30 years in the area.
“This past year we got hit hard,” he said.
A possible target
Secluded shores, bluff-top hideouts and the cover of cliffs might be attractive characteristics to organized smuggling rings looking for a spot where they can easily offload people or drugs. Qualities like these not many L.A. County cities can claim could contribute to the Peninsula's increased use as a landing site as smuggling operations move north.
Smuggling groups usually send scouts ahead to check out prospective landing sites and gauge whether the spot’s a good one for an upcoming trip, said Virginia Kice, ICE western regional communications director/spokesperson. Other times, PV landings can happen by chance.
Unexpected factors such as rocky shoreline and kelp forests can make a smooth landing impossible, which leads to the discovery of capsized and abandoned boats, Bolin said.
“I think occasions where they bring these boats ashore sometimes is planned, sometimes is accidental,” Kice said. “One of the challenges with PV is that it’s a long way to get from PV to jump on a freeway,” she said. “You’d think they’d want to bring these vessels ashore on a place … (where there’s) less of a likelihood neighbors or residents are going to detect illegal activity.”
But most of these smuggling attempts occur late at night or early in the morning, often unbeknownst to locals, who by that time are off the roads and unaware of what’s happening on the mostly unpopulated beaches.
Not a “practical location to offload people,” most incidents in Palos Verdes have involved marijuana smuggling, Arnold said.
“They pull up, there’s a cliffy area, they’re using that as cover. … They can move the bales of marijuana up,” he said.
And compared to other, more populated and developed beach cities, using Palos Verdes as a landing point just makes more sense, Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor Pro Tem Brian Campbell said.
“You’re not going to bring a boat ashore in Manhattan Beach,” he said.
Protecting the coast
Now local authorities are trying their best to send a message to smugglers who think the Peninsula is an easy spot to drop off their contraband.
“If these smugglers … believed that it would be easy for them to land here along the Peninsula, then we believe they’ve grossly underestimated our ability to thwart their landings and their operation,” Bolin said. “We know that they’re going to go where they believe they can be most successful. … We’re going to make sure the Palos Verdes Peninsula is not high on their list.”
There is a “heightened awareness” among deputies who patrol areas where panga sightings have occurred, he said.
"The community can rest assured that the authorities that are responsible for addressing this are addressing this very aggressively," Bolin said.
The Department of Homeland Security’s recently established Los Angeles/Long Beach Regional Coordination Mechanism oversees efforts to combat maritime smuggling in the L.A. area. It’s made up of state and local law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff’s departments of Orange and Los Angeles counties, in addition to ICE Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Air and Marine, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Border Patrol, and U.S. Coast Guard.
Authorities are hopeful any initial luck smugglers had in trying this new tactic will eventually run out.
“As they adapt to our successes, we’ll adapt and we’ll have more successes,” Arnold said.
Once more people are educated and know what to look out for, or who to call if they see something suspicious, it will become increasingly difficult for smugglers to carry out their operations, he said.
“[Smuggling groups] try these novel ideas of smuggling,” Arnold said. “[They’re] effective initially, but as everyone gets educated … they’re forced to move on to something else.”
As most smuggling attempts take place in the middle of the night in secluded locations, it’s no wonder Palos Verdes locals might be unaware of every single landing on nearby beaches. And now, with a string of boat landings and sightings behind them, local government officials are considering how to send a message to residents, or even if they'll reach out at all.
A lull in PV landings this year might be providing a sense of security in the communities. Palos Verdes Estates Mayor John Rea said the city has not reached out to residents about past panga landings on the local shoreline, but said he would consider educating them about the issue.
"[The lull] makes me wonder whether this is going to continue," he said. "I guess we’ll see."
Palos Verdes Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes, the PV cities that shouldered the full brunt of smuggling incidents in 2011, don't appear to have concrete plans in place to formally alert residents of local panga landings, though officials from both cities are considering public education.
“I would like for the city to take a leadership role in raising awareness within RPV," Campbell said.
This would likely include adding boat landing information to community discussions on other criminal activity, he said.
"I wouldn’t go out and just be talking about boat landings, I'd be talking about overall crime awareness," Campbell said. "... Should we add boat landings and concern about that to the list of other criminal activity we should be aware of out there? Yes."
Local Neighborhood Watch groups have sent out warning information to residents about the smuggling incidents and are on the lookout for suspicious activity.
"[Residents], of course, are alarmed," said Gail Lorenzen, of Rancho Palos Verdes Neighborhood Watch, in an email. "As we have all learned, crime can happen anywhere, even on our own shores."
Campbell said the city plans to continue working with the local sheriff’s department to raise community awareness among residents and city workers.
“I am concerned that some incident will happen involving a resident when these criminals accidentally land on our beaches and then try to make their escape through our city,” Campbell said. “We’ve got more than our share of remote beaches and open space,” he said. “It’s a great thing about our community [but] it might also invite people to land there.”
Residents are asked to report any suspicious activity to ICE at 866-DHS-2ICE or 866-347-2423 or notify the local sheriff’s station at 310-539-1661.