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3 held in drug smuggling near San Onofre

The suspects are accused of transporting 741 pounds of marijuana in the latest example of smuggling by sea.

August 13, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Diego

Three men were arrested south of San Onofre State Beach as they tried to sneak 741 pounds of marijuana into the United States from Mexico, authorities said, another example of the illicit trend of smuggling by sea.

The three men were spotted in a panga-style boat by the U.S. Border Patrol, Oceanside Harbor Patrol and a helicopter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Aboard the boat were 32 bundles of marijuana, worth an estimated $444,600, officials said.

The arrests were made Thursday near Red Beach, where Marines learn amphibious assault. To the chagrin of the Marine Corps, the beaches of Camp Pendleton have become a favorite landing spot for the smugglers of illegal immigrants and drugs.

Last year, 867 illegal immigrants and smugglers were arrested along the California coast or at sea, more than double the number in 2009.

Although northern San Diego County and southern Orange County are the most common spots, an empty 30-foot motorboat was discovered in March off Malibu. Officials believe it was used to transport illegal immigrants or drugs.

In June, three men were arrested after California National Guard troops saw them traveling in a boat without lights near San Onofre State Beach. The boat was carrying 1,543 pounds of marijuana, worth nearly $1 million, officials said.

Smuggling illegal immigrants is lucrative but risky. Officials say that tiny boats are often crammed with up to 25 people. Some passengers pay as much as $6,000 each, and many do not wear life vests. Last year two suspected illegal immigrants drowned when their boat capsized near Torrey Pines State Beach. The boat was designed for 10 people but was packed with more than twice that number, officials said.

The California coastline is not the only place where smugglers are using boats, officials said. On Tuesday, Border Patrol agents from McAllen, Texas, confiscated more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana from three vehicles and a metal boat beside the Rio Grande.

Although smuggling by sea may be the newest trend, old-fashioned overland smuggling is still practiced. Underground, too.

On Friday, the Mexican army announced that it had discovered an unfinished drug tunnel that was apparently meant to stretch from Tijuana into the United States. The tunnel was 328 yards long and hidden beneath a house under construction.

In November, a 650-yard tunnel was discovered.

This time, the smugglers apparently were hoping for better luck. An altar to the Santa Muerte, an icon said to be worshiped by drug smugglers, was found in the house.

It didn't work. Ten people were arrested by Mexican authorities.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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