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New panga incident investigated as possible smuggling operation

25 people are detained as boat comes ashore in Rancho Palos Verdes, a week after a Coast Guardsman was killed in an encounter with another panga.

December 10, 2012|By Adolfo Flores and Ruben Vives | Los Angeles Times
  • At Abalone Cove Shoreline Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, officers detain people believed to be illegal immigrants who came ashore aboard a panga boat of the type that has become popular with human smugglers.
At Abalone Cove Shoreline Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, officers detain… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Authorities detained 25 people early Monday riding aboard a panga boat that drifted ashore in Rancho Palos Verdes in the early morning dark in what's being investigated as a possible human smuggling operation.

Two vans, one registered to a Ventura medical transportation firm, were discovered parked near a winding path leading to the Portuguese Bend shoreline. Authorities described them as possible pickup vehicles.

The incident follows a fatal encounter last week off the Santa Barbara coastline in which a Coast Guardsman was killed when two men aboard a panga gunned their engines and struck the vessel he was riding in, tossing him into the ocean.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III of Redondo Beach died of a head injury caused by a propeller, according to court documents filed in connection with a murder case against the two suspected panga crew members. They were both detained as they tried to flee to Mexico.

In the pre-dawn dark Monday, authorities said they discovered 25 migrants — 19 men and six women — riding in a 40-foot "super panga" boat, said Joseph Macias, deputy special agent for Homeland Security. No guns or other weapons were found on the vessel.

Border Patrol agents said they spotted the panga, a type of fishing boat that has become the vessel of choice in recent years for drug and human smugglers, off of Abalone Cove about 5 a.m. during routine surveillance.

Agents asked for assistance from other agencies as the boat approached the shore, said Virginia Kice, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman. Gathered on the shore, agents waited for the boat to slide onto the beach and then detained the passengers.

Maritime smuggling has been on the rise as federal authorities fortified border and airport enforcement. In the last two years, encounters with ocean-going smugglers has nearly doubled, with the sharpest increase along secluded beaches in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, though the greatest number still occur in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, according to Customs.

In 2008, there were 45 human-smuggling-related incidents, most of them in the San Diego area. In 2012 there were more than 200.

"They started in Orange County or San Diego and now they're coming up north," Macias said. "They start taking longer and larger risks."

Homeland Security is now interviewing those apprehended on the panga, hoping to identify the operators. The interviews could be revealing, Macias said, providing insight into what routes are used to ferry migrants up the Southern California coastline and whether the boat found Monday is part of a larger operation.

Typically the people who are attempting to come into the United States illegally by boat are from Mexico, Kice said, but federal authorities have encountered nationals from other countries as well.

"All smugglers are concerned about is who can pay them," Kice said. "We're still conducting interviews and are working to fully identify all the suspects taken into custody.... Our focus is trying to unravel the broader criminal operation."

Those not held for possible criminal prosecution will be turned over to Border Patrol for possible deportation , Kice said.

Authorities said they are also seeking information on two vehicles — a 1991 blue GMC van and a 2002 red Dodge sports car — that were parked near the beach. One of the vans was registered to a medical transportation company, the other to an individual. The rear window of the GMC van had a sticker with the image of St. Jude that reads "Cuida mi camino" (Look after my path.)

As the encounter off the Rancho Palos Verdes coastline unfolded, police in San Diego's Carmel Valley early Monday arrested 16 people, some in wet clothing caked with sand, believed to be in the U.S. illegally. Some of them were found in a van on Interstate 5, the others hiding in the brush along the freeway's center divider.

Authorities said they suspect those arrested came by boat but that the two incidents do not appear to be connected.

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