RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In California three people are in jail after being caught, this week, smuggling a load of marijuana into the U.S. by sea. Small fishing boats, called pangas, are being used more and more to smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants. They can often fit more than a dozen people, move fast, and are hard to detect.
As law enforcement cracks down on these risky sea journeys, smugglers are responding by taking their contraband loads far up the coast of California, sometimes hundreds of miles from the border. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Most mornings, George Uraguchi grabs his paddle board and heads down this steep secluded canyon in Palos Verdes, one of L.A. County's wealthier coastal communities. On one recent morning, though, his pre-dawn excursion was interrupted by what he saw in the still water.
GEORGE URAGUCHI: It was more than just debris there. You know, I saw some life jackets and when I looked a little closer then sure enough there was an overturned boat out there.
KAHN: Uraguchi called 911, then hopped into the water and paddled out through the floating life jackets and bobbing fuel cans.
URAGUCHI: By that time the police had shown up and they were up here on the trail, and I yelled up to them and just said, hey do you want me to look for bodies? And they said yeah.
KAHN: He didn't find any. In fact, it was pretty clear everyone had made it to shore. Wet jackets, soaked jeans and shirts lined the path all the way up to the road. These guys got away, but over the last year more than 600 people have been caught trying to sneak into Southern California by sea.
The small boats are used in Mexico to fish. They are about 20 feet long, and with two or three outboard motors on back, a smuggler can take a load of up to 20 people far up the coast. This summer, illegal immigrants were found stranded in the ocean, more than a dozen were rescued after being abandoned on a nearby island. And one boatload even tried to come ashore during an international surfing contest. Some however, don't make it at all.
ARMANDO BENITEZ SERAFISCO: (Spanish language spoken)
KAHN: Armando Benitez Serafisco's nephew died last month in the waters north of San Diego County. I reached him by phone at his home in Oaxaca, Mexico.
SERAFISCO: (Spanish language spoken)
KAHN: He says losing his nephew, who was only 41, has been painful. Antonio Bonifacio Benitez lived in L.A. with his wife and three kids. He just recently went back to Mexico to bury his mother. His uncle says Bonifacio tried three times to illegally cross back into the U.S. over land, but was caught every time. So he decided to pay $9,000 for the boat trip. He was found lying face down dead in the boat when it washed ashore.
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KAHN: In Orange County, more than a hundred miles from the border, two local Sheriff deputies are on the lookout. They take their harbor patrol boat out of the marina and into the ocean. Once two miles out, they slow the engine, shut the lights, and wait.
JOSH BAUGH: We're just going to troll out here now until we either see something on the radar or we get a call that somebody's seen something.
KAHN: It's past midnight and Sheriff's Deputy Josh Baugh says nothing usually happens until dawn. Then all of a sudden, a panga pops up and heads to shore. His partner Nick Wray says 46 miles of coastline is a lot to cover with one boat.
NICK WRAY: You know, we only know about the ones that we are catching. Who knows about all the other ones that we're missing.
KAHN: But they're not the only ones partnering in this new battle along California's coastline.
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KAHN: At the massive Port of Long Beach, the Border Patrol has set up shop inside the command center to better coordinate with local agencies. Supervising Agent, Steve McPartland, is in a large conference room. Huge screens project radar images of every craft near the port.
STEVE MCPARTLAND: We're taking the fight to where we need to take it. I mean, there's no doubt about it.
KAHN: But back in Palos Verdes, resident George Uraguchi, who stumbled on a smuggler's overturned boat, says he doesn't believe the Border Patrol has a handle on the increased smuggling by sea.
URAGUCHI: I don't know what we have a Border Patrol for. I'd rather get my money back or a tax break, because you know what, they are useless.
KAHN: He wants more done to secure the border so his quiet cove and community remain just that way.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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