On any given day, a game of cat and mouse is being played out along “Smuggler’s Corridor,” the nearshore waters off Southern California and Northern Baja California. United States federal agents play cat. Their role is to nab smugglers as they ferry illicit human and narcotic cargo across the border.
The role of mouse is typically played aboard a small boat, usually an open skiff called a panga. Smugglers avoid detection by motoring across the border at night.
If lucky, they drop their cargoes on beaches and in bays and coves, and then return from whence they came. If unlucky, they may be captured by U.S. federal agents or fall victim to rough seas. Last year, two illegal immigrants died.
It’s a high-risk game, but rewards are high, too. A single smuggling skiff may carry nearly a ton of marijuana with a street value of $100,000 or more.
Pangas carry expensive human cargo, too. They’re often overloaded with two dozen or more illegal immigrants, who pay between $2,500 and $4,000 each to be brought to the U.S.
The human and drug smuggling trade is so lucrative that it is almost completely controlled by Mexican drug cartels, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents.
Decades ago, most contraband was smuggled over land at various weak points along a very porous U.S./Mexico border. But years of strengthening the fence and instituting other measures have pushed smugglers out to sea in increasing numbers.
The U.S. response has been to deploy more assets to Smuggler’s Corridor — including the Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and CBP, to name a few. The result is that authorities are now catching more smugglers in the act than ever before.
But the positive act of stymieing seagoing smugglers might end up negatively affecting Southern California recreational boaters.
In Texas, where authorities have also succeeded in greatly reducing the tide of narcotic and illegal alien smuggling, drug cartels have turned to piracy. And it could happen along the Pacific coast’s Smuggler’s Corridor, too.Falcon Lake Pirates
The name sounds like a high school baseball team, but these Falcon Lake pirates are armed and dangerous drug cartel members who operate on a 3-mile-wide, 25-mile-long body of water that straddles the U.S./Mexico border, some 200 miles upstream of the Rio Grande delta.
Falcon Lake in Zapata, Texas is noted for tremendous bass fishing, and anglers from around the world come to catch these trophy fish. However, on several occasions in recent months, pirates in skiffs and high-speed bass boats have been the ones doing the catching and releasing.
On April 30, five people in two different boats on Falcon Lake were fishing and taking photos. Four heavily tattooed armed men approached the boats and identified themselves as Mexican Federal Police (Federales).
The men were not wearing uniforms, but they boarded the boats, demanded cash and looked for drugs. The anglers ended up giving the men $200 cash before motoring away. The pirates followed the group for a while before returning to Mexican waters.
Ironically, success in shutting down drug and human smuggling on the lake has pushed cartel members to acts of piracy, according to an article in the Washington Post.
“Dressed in black, the pirates brandish automatic weapons, carry radio cell phones and board the anglers’ boats,” the story stated. “They demand weapons or drugs from their captives, but finding neither, seem satisfied with taking $400 or $500 as booty, according to law enforcement officials and victims’ accounts.”
After several such robberies and attempted armed robberies, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office warned boaters on Falcon Lake to stay on the U.S. side, stay out of Mexican waters and be suspicious of approaching vessels. In the past, anglers freely crossed the meandering border, delineated by a string of buoys.
“Fishermen are advised to stay as far away as possible from any of the Argos-type fishing boats typically used as fishing vessels by Mexican fishermen,” the official alert stated. “These boats have a large prow, a small outboard motor without a cowling and no identification numbers on the hull.”
Pangas used along Southern California’s Smuggler’s Corridor also typically have high bows, small outboards, no cowling and no hull numbers.Serious Business
Falcon Lake pirates are believed to be members of a single drug trafficking organization. They tend to use local Mexican fishermen and boats so that they do not attract suspicion as they close in on unwary American anglers, sources said. When the trap is sprung, the buccaneers often brandish assault rifles to threaten their victims.
Another incident occurred on May 6. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, three anglers were about a quarter mile beyond the wandering waterborne boundary line when they were approached by a Mexican fishing skiff.
When the vessel came near, the anglers saw that both men on board carried AR-15 assault rifles. One pirate pointed his weapon at the anglers, while the other boarded their boat.
After finding nothing worth stealing, the man on board chambered a round into his rifle and took money from the anglers’ wallets. Authorities have no leads on the brigands.
A May 16 raid by five armed men on boaters on the U.S. side of the lake’s border has further heightened tensions. In that raid, the pirates also claimed to be Federales. But victims report that instead of uniforms, the pirates wore civilian clothes and had the letter “Z” tattooed on their necks and arms — a sign of affiliation with a notorious drug cartel.
Los Zetas is believed to be responsible for “a rampage of killing and extortion along the Mexican border, as they fight gun and grenade battles against the military and the rival Gulf Cartel,” according to the Washington Post.
Jose E. Gonzalez, second in command of the Border Patrol’s Zapata station, operates a round-the-clock maritime patrol on the lake.
“Within the last month, with all the feuding going on over there, the dope smuggling has dropped off — and it is starving them,” Gonzalez said in a published interview.
“This water is Zeta central,” he said. “They controlled the whole lake. They distributed everything. Now, they’re desperate and diversifying.”
Will SoCal Smugglers ‘Diversify,’ Too?
While no instances of piracy have been yet reported along Southern California’s Smuggler’s Corridor, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it could happen.
Circumstances are similar: Mexico, including the northwest border region, has been ravaged by violence as drug cartels vie for superiority and control. In a recently televised message, President Felipe Calderon appealed to the nation to support his fight against organized crime — a fight that has seen more than 23,000 people killed since late 2006, when thousands of troops and federal police were deployed to drug hot spots.
“This is a battle that is worth fighting, because our future is at stake,” Calderon said. “It’s a battle that, with all Mexicans united, we will win.”
Along Smuggler’s Corridor in U.S. waters, marine interdictions are occurring at a higher rate than ever. According to a San Diego-based CBP agent, authorities have caught people trying to enter the United States illegally by boat in San Diego County more than 54 times in the past nine months. That compares to 49 sea smuggling cases during the entire previous year — and the busy season is just now upon us.
Tons of marijuana intercepted and literally hundreds of illegal immigrants arrested and deported make it harder for the cartels to operate.
Nobody knows when — or if — the northwestern Mexican drug cartels might shift to piracy.
In Southern California, authorities said they have not heard of any incidents of piracy.
“We have no indication that this is occurring near San Diego, or that it will occur,” said Paul Pope, supervisory marine interdiction agent for CBP in San Diego. “That being said, all boaters should exercise caution — just as if they were in a vehicle traveling.”
Travelers on some highways in northwestern Mexico are now being targeted for robbery, according to a longstanding U.S. State Department Travel Warning.
“(U.S. citizens) have also been caught in incidents of gunfire between criminals and Mexican law enforcement,” the Travel Warning stated. “Criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas including Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Tijuana. U.S. citizens traveling to and from the U.S. border should be especially vigilant.”
So should Southland recreational boaters.
If smugglers-turned-pirates can operate with impunity on a 75-square-mile lake in Texas, others may decide they can do so on the 3,500-square-mile stretch of water known as Smuggler’s Corridor.
John Campbell, longtime San Diego boater and organizer of the area’s International Yellowtail Derby, said he believes unreported acts of piracy might have already occurred.
“It’s probable that this has happened in the past, maybe recently,” Campbell said. “People go missing. A boat turns up. Who’s to say?”
Credits: The Log - California Boating and Fishing news