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Two Views on Panga Boats and Smuggling

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"I know this... a man got to do what he got to do."
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The ocean at night is a black and infinitely lonely place. This unnerves some. I have been on boats with people who, even on the calmest nights, refuse to venture out on deck for fear of tumbling overboard and being left alone in a black and featureless world, wrapped, on every plane, by darkness. In some instances this is amusing and right-minded: a friend who favors T-shirts that say "More Beer Please, My Friend is Still Ugly" has been known to experience substantial difficulty simply walking from the galley to his cabin.

Others embrace the night sea. Once, traveling through South Carolina, I spent time with some commercial fishermen in the small town of Murrell's Inlet. I already knew that commercial fishing was a seriously dangerous business, but these fishermen, in laconic fishermen's manner, spoke of dangers I had never realized. One of them recounted being woken in the middle of the night by a friend he had brought on this particular fishing trip.

"He was all kinds of excited, shouting about us being boarded and waving a pistol in my face," said the fisherman, whose name was Harry, and whose friend was a retired cop. Harry had been around the oceanic block enough to know that on a swaying sea a pistol is an imprecise weapon. "I carry this sawed-off shot on board," said Harry. "I tell people it's for sharks, but it has other uses. My friend's radioing the Coast Guard shouting to them about us being boarded and giving them our coordinates. I went out on the deck. I could see this other boat. All the lights were off but one, and I could see them lowering a boat off the stern. You could barely hear their motor. My friend's still radioing the Coast Guard, and I'm saying to him. 'Nobody's crossing in front of a sawed-off shotgun.' But looking back on it, it's a good thing he got on the radio because they didn't come across, and that may have been what scared them off."

My blank look was obvious. Harry took a sip of coffee, and then helped me along. "That night I was guessing it could have been one of two things. They were coming for help, or they were coming for my boat. Well, the Coast Guard caught them the next day. I walked into a mini-mart, and there's a picture on the front page of the newspaper of that same boat right there. I mean it stopped me dead in my tracks. And it was full of pot. Full."

Harry finished the story with matter-of-fact flourish.

"They come on board, slit your stomach open, and throw you overboard, and you're fish food. They use your boat to run the drugs ashore, and then they sink it. Nobody ever knows what happened to you."

Harry did not pronounce judgment. He just shrugged.

"Crazy, desperate shit," he said. "I just don't know."

No doubt, many who use the night sea are conscienceless murderers and profiteers, but like most things in life, even smuggling isn't always black and white.

Maritime smuggling is on the rise in Southern California, smugglers in Mexico ferrying drugs and people by boat into United States waters and, eventually, on to U.S. soil. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs figures, over the last two years law enforcement encounters with ocean-going smugglers in Southern California have nearly doubled, and you will note these figures include only encounters. What's happening is simple. It's tougher now for smugglers to do their work on land, so they have turned to the sea.

Authorities believe a smuggling vessel is launched toward California every three days. As you might imagine, like the encounters, this figure is a guess. The pangas, on average, are 30 feet long.

Some news accounts term them vessels, a grand term for a boat where you can easily reach over and dip a finger in the sea. Once, in a panga negotiating a reef pass in Belize, I listened to two German girls utter frantic prayers while I silently thanked my lucky stars for a mediocre swimming career. Even the pilot crossed himself.

When they first took to the sea, the smugglers' trips were shorter; they put ashore mostly on beaches in San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles. They still do. Last month authorities waited on the sand in early morning darkness in Rancho Palos Verdes for a panga -- an open-hulled boat with, in this case, 25 people crowded together on wood benches -- to come ashore. No weapons were found on the panga. The same day police in San Diego's Carmel Valley arrested 16 people, some of them wet and sandy, after pulling over a van on Interstate 5. Police found others hiding in the brush in the freeway's center divider. Try to imagine this.

But now, with law enforcement agencies in San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties pooling their resources, it's harder for the smugglers to land on these beaches undetected. Piloting pangas crammed beyond capacity with drugs or people -- according to news accounts, immigrants pay an average of $6,000 apiece (some accounts put the sum at twice that) -- they are now heading farther out to sea, and much farther north. Last June, six people were arrested unloading over a ton of marijuana from a panga at Santa Barbara County's El Capitan State Beach. In December, the smugglers made front page headlines when a Coast Guardsman was killed in an encounter off Santa Cruz Island off Ventura County's shores.

This was the saddest of news. Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was only 34. He left behind two young sons and a pregnant wife. His vessel, the 87-foot Halibut based in Marina del Rey, was dispatched early on a Sunday morning to investigate a 30-foot panga motoring off Santa Cruz Island, the largest of California's eight Channel Islands, with its running lights off. When the Halibut arrived off Santa Cruz, her crew put a smaller rigid-hull inflatable in the water. Officer Horne was on board. When the Coast Guard officers hailed the panga, the men piloting the skiff gunned the engine and rammed the inflatable, knocking Horne into the water. He died of head wounds caused by the inflatable's propeller. The men in the panga fled, but once you are found on the open ocean there is no place to hide. A military aircraft followed the panga until another Coast Guard vessel overtook them. The two Mexican men are now being charged with killing a federal officer.

Terrell Horne's death was a shock to everyone. Most Coast Guard encounters with smugglers end with little more than a failed attempt to flee. Already the ramifications of Horne's death are unfolding. Shortly after Horne's death a federal judge sentenced a Mexican man, whose marijuana-filled panga got stuck in rocks off a beach in Malibu, to nearly four years in prison. In handing down the sentence, the judge said Terrell's death had changed his view. He no longer saw smuggling as a light-hearted caper. The defendant's lawyer argued that his client was only desperate to get to the United States and find work.

Reading these accounts, my heart broke for Terrell Horne's family. Anyone with a heart can imagine the loss; to Horne's wife, to his children, to Horne himself, who will now never help with a finger painting, see a high school graduation, hold a grandchild in his arms. It is loss and sadness beyond measure.

But I also think about the small pangas, and the men, women and children who ride in them. The ocean is a vast place. Six thousand dollars, for many, is a lifetime's savings. Piloting a panga, filled with marijuana or frightened passengers, is a terribly risky business.

I am not condoning the smuggling of drugs or people. Certainly there is a criminal element involved: the profiteers who pocket thousands of dollars, taken mostly from those who can least afford it. Authorities estimate a panga full of marijuana bales can yield millions.

The criminals at the top of the chain, the ones orchestrating these smugglings, should hang by their thumbs. But I doubt they are the ones piloting the pangas through the darkness, or the ones sitting cold and frightened, shoulder to shoulder, in an open boat. The people in the pangas, they are orchestrating little to nothing. Their lives are not small, but there is a good chance their lives are desperate. Who else would travel in a wooden shaving far out into an uncaring sea, heading toward what they cannot see. Freedom? Work? A new life? Deportation? Prison? The loss of everything?

What is right, wrong, innocence, guilt? I was born into a good life, opportunity ladled into my hands. But most of the world was not. I often wonder what I would do if I had been dealt the other hand.

It's a question I can't honestly answer, although I think Steinbeck's gray answer comes close.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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