Convinced that international smugglers increasingly are moving drugs through Ventura County harbors and airports, the U.S. Customs Service disclosed this week that it is forming a regional task force to combat the growing problem.
"We have evidence of large loads of dope coming in by boat and by plane," said Fernando Ramos, resident agent in charge of the Customs Service investigative unit in Oxnard.
"Indications are they are trying to get around San Diego and Los Angeles," Ramos said. "We have hard intelligence that they are moving up this way."
Although he declined to give details of the Customs crackdown in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, Ramos said letters were sent last week to federal and local law enforcement agencies that might be involved in the smuggler task force.
Noting that the only ports now officially patrolled on a full-time basis by Customs agents are Port Hueneme and Avila Bay, Ramos indicated that enforcement activities will be increased along the coast.
Ramos pointedly declined comment when asked if Ventura Harbor and Channel Islands Harbor would be among the targets for increased scrutiny, but other law enforcement officials told The Times that plans call for a more aggressive presence in those areas.
In addition to closer monitoring of possible maritime smuggling, Ramos said, the Customs Service wants to focus more attention on the small airports and hundreds of potential landing strips scattered throughout the three-county area.
Citing the recent seizure of almost 500 pounds of cocaine at a private landing strip in Santa Barbara County, Ramos said the wilderness areas of Ventura and surrounding counties are logical destinations for smugglers seeking to elude tighter anti-drug enforcement in Southern California.
"All they have to do is add another fuel tank and they can make it to any of 100 unapproved landing strips in this area," Ramos said. "At this point, marine smuggling is probably the biggest problem for us, but we also want to give more attention to the airports around here."
The task force envisioned by the Customs Service probably will not be officially formed for at least a month, Ramos said, adding that the actual functions of such a joint federal and local effort are still in the planning stage.
"What we're doing is just formalizing a lot of existing working relationships with other agencies," he said. "If we have something going in one area, it will give us extra resources."
Little Statistical Proof
Ramos said the Customs Service has little statistical proof to support its view that smuggling is on the increase in the region, but cited several recent tips from reliable informants of major drug shipments headed for the area.
"The Coast Guard took down 10 tons of marijuana off Santa Cruz just recently that was headed for this area," he said. "In the last 18 months, we have had reliable information of two major loads . . . that got through. We just don't know how much else is getting in."
Most of the illegal drugs being smuggled into Ventura and the counties to the north are high-grade variants of Asian marijuana, Ramos said. But he said he is confident that both heroin and cocaine in smaller quantities are also being smuggled in by ship.
One key partner in the planned task force will be the U.S. Coast Guard, Ramos said. He declined to rule out spot checks of ships in Ventura Harbor or Channel Islands Harbor by either Coast Guard or Customs vessels.
While Ramos said he believes that there is some drug smuggling in Ventura and other areas, he said he thinks that Santa Barbara County has become the most active area in the region for drug smugglers.
Ramos, a Customs agent since 1973, said he has watched smuggling activities switch from area to area over the years as enforcement activities have been stepped up in one locale or another.
Illegal Export Cases
Ramos said the Customs Service, which devotes much of its attention in the Ventura area to illegal high-technology export cases, has become increasingly aggressive in its anti-smuggling activities in recent years.
In 1988, Customs agents in California seized 271 pounds of heroin, 18,193 pounds of cocaine, 88,465 pounds of hashish, 125,676 pounds of marijuana and 1,262 pounds of opium. That compared to 169 pounds of heroin, 1,362 pounds of cocaine, 14 pounds of hashish, 68,065 pounds of marijuana and 211 pounds of opium just two years earlier.
Half of the heroin and almost 90% of the cocaine was seized in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas, one reason why Ramos and other Customs officials think that smugglers are actively looking for alternative entry points to the California drug-consuming market.