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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is investigating the possibility of human smuggling after a 30-foot panga boat was found washed up on Goleta Beach last Friday morning.
The fiberglass boat, which was discovered by beach maintenance workers at around 5 a.m., had a single outboard motor and contained approximately 20 gas cans, 12 life jackets, several articles of black clothing and some food, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley. While this is the first recorded panga boat-related incident in Santa Barbara County this year, over 20 such instances were reported throughout the area in 2012.
According to Haley, Homeland Security officials suspect human smuggling activity due to the food and clothing found on the boat.
“We don’t believe it was drugs because of the clothing that was found, and the life jackets and the food,” Haley said. “It was probably human smuggling — migrants, people trying to get here from Mexico or another country.”
Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Dave Wells, who is currently in charge of the investigation of maritime smuggling off the Santa Barbara coast, said panga boat contraband smuggling is a common occurrence in California’s southern coastal waters.
“[Foreign smugglers] are in route to the United States to various locations throughout Southern California,” Wells said. “They carry various forms of contrabands or people.”
According to Wells, this contraband may not be limited to drug and human smuggling. Wells said Homeland Security attempts to monitor potential smuggling activity by collaborating with state and local law enforcement agencies and encouraging the public to report any suspicious situations.
“The federal law enforcement entities under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella [has] a whole number of us working collaboratively with our state and local partners to combat this issue,” Wells said. “We are doing it through a number of different ways, but the biggest thing is just having people keep their eyes and ears open for these types of events and notify law enforcement when they do see something that doesn’t seem right.”
Last month, U.S. Coast Guard veteran Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was killed during a panga boat confrontation off the coast of Santa Barbara. According to Wells, the officer and his partner were issuing a warning to the smugglers who then responded by ramming their large ship into the smaller Coast Guard boat.
Wells said such smugglers are extremely dangerous and that civilians should report any potential sightings to law enforcement immediately and avoid becoming involved in the situation at all costs.
“The people these cartels employ are not very nice people,” Wells said. “They are willing to take great risks to bring in their cargo, whether they be contrabands or the people that they’ve been hired to introduce to the country.”
Wells said these cartels use a highly sophisticated communication system and strategically plan landings with lookouts on shore to signal incoming boats.
“From our homeland security standpoint, anything that is brought in clandestinely like that is a potential threat to the public and the people of this great country,” Wells said. “That is very great concern to us. People that wish to this country harm is a great concern. Any kind of contraband introduced — whether it is drugs or guns or anything else — is a huge concern to us as well, in addition to weapons that can hurt a lot of people.”
Wells said his team has intercepted many smugglers with the help of civilians who have contacted the authorities, and that Homeland Security recently initiated a program to encourage the public to remain vigilant.
“The Department of Homeland Security came out earlier with a program that was very simply put: ‘If you see something, say something.’ If you see something that doesn’t seem right, report it,” Wells said. “Help us protect this country that we all love, and that’s what we are trying to do is to protect the public and the people of this great country and keep us safe.”
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 22nd, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.