The morning of February 16, 2015, began with promise for 61-year-old commercial diver Eric Bjorklund. Diving for sea urchin, he discovered the stern of an abandoned and mostly submerged boat and two outboard motors jutting out of the water near San Miguel Island, California. Bjorklund knew he could claim the boat as salvage and take it in for a nice paycheck, he recalled in an interview.
But it wasn't just any boat: The roughly 30-foot-long vessel was a panga, the craft law enforcement officials suspect is sometimes used by El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel to smuggle drugs into the United States. After spending the next hour and a half bucketing water out of the thing and finally reaching the boat's loading ramp, Bjorklund and his assistant were greeted by officers from several US government agencies pointing rifles at them, he told me.
Over the past several years, panga boat smuggling has been a consistent, if uneven, presence along California's Central Coast. For some in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the pangas are a sign that border crackdowns and drug busts actually have an impact, forcing cartels to resort to aquatic access points. But their continued use suggest cartel methods may not have changed all that much since the much-hyped 2014 capture, and 2016 recapture, of former Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Despite the unique risks that come with smuggling via water, pangas seem to have become a regular means of transportation for smugglers of all kinds, whether or not they are tied to cartels. Compared to the sleek, picuda boats used by smugglers in the Caribbean, pangas are cheap, easy to build, lightweight, fast, and lend themselves to blending in along the Baja California region. The Coast Guard refers to both kinds of boats as "go-fasts," which isn't to say they're particularly safe.
"Most drugs are [still] transported via vehicle past the border in small loads," one DEA intelligence agent said through a spokesman. "There's a long risk moving it on the high seas."
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Still, pangas aren't expected to disappear as the Sinaloa dukes it out with rival Cartel de Jalisco Nuevo Generacion for territory. Among the more recent panga sightings was that of a 30-foot-long vessel on May 19 near Refugio State Beach in Southern Santa Barbara County, California. Five bales of marijuana were uncovered in nearby bushes, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.
Long considered one of the pioneers of the modern panga, Mac Shroyer told VICE he started building the boats in the early 1970s, around the time when a new ferry service and the construction of a 1,000-mile-long highway connecting the Baja peninsula to the mainland made it easier to ship locally-caught fish inland. The 82-year-old expatriate originally from Barrington, Illinois still runs a marina with his wife and son in La Paz, Mexico.
Shroyer started building wood pangas no more than 26 feet in length, before moving onto fiberglass. Creating one is a "pretty straight forward process" that involves forming the hull around a mold with several layers of fiberglass and resin, and then painting it, Shroyer explained. It's labor-intensive work, he added, but several boats can be built over the same mold, and the process hasn't changed a whole lot decades later.
"They're all molded in a very well-established system of molds, and employees were trained very quickly to build them," Shroyer told me.
The simple and bare V-shaped hull lended itself to easy modification, and the boat's resiliency enabled fishermen to carry huge loads of fish to market, according to Shroyer. They're cheap, too: Shroyer estimates that his signature boats cost anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000, the bigger ones fetching a higher price. The boats have become so ubiquitous that Shroyer claims they're responsible for some of the overfishing along the Baja coast.
Bigger pangas, 30-plus feet long, eventually came on the scene—these vessels could handle outboard motors of up to 125-horsepower. Eventually, pangas seem to have been adopted by drug cartels, emerging as a regular sight for coastal communities further north along the Sea of Cortez, where cars and trucks waited to drive drug loads to the border.
The lightweight design and shape makes the boat easy to haul onto an exposed beach for quick offloading, Shroyer said. And their inexpensiveness means they can be easily abandoned.
The boats are generally considered dangerous by savvy locals: In December 2012, a panga rammed a US Coast Guard boat, killing 34-year-old Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III. And they're extremely difficult to track in a six million-square-mile transit zone, even one frequently patrolled by Coast Guard cutters. Sometimes, the boats are covered in tarps to help avoid detection. "The sheer size and scope of the area makes apprehending narcotics traffickers extremely difficult," said Lt. Max Franco, a spokesman for the Eleventh Coast Guard District, which patrols the waters off California. "You can put the entire continental US out in the eastern Pacific Water."
Since the notorious Terrell episode, pangas have made for an occasional site along California's remote beaches, particularly in Santa Barbara County, where incidents peaked at 30 in 2013, according to statistics provided to VICE by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.
Sightings in the area have dropped dramatically since then, but have re-emerged from time to time, with some abandoned pangas found further north along the shores of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. In July and September of 2013, two pangas, 35- and 20-footers, respectively, and both carrying marijuana were seized by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, according to a state report.
And even if the number of boats has dropped off, their loads are still substantial.
Coast Guard statistics provided to VICE show 13 panga cases (including seven interceptions) so far between fiscal year 2016 and 2017. From those, 22,931 pounds of marijuana valued at over $20.7 million were seized.
The origins of an abandoned almost 50-foot "super panga" found by crabber Travis Lobo in 2012 near Tajiguas Beach in Santa Barbara County pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel. Investigators from the US Department of Homeland Security traced the serial numbers from the boat's four, 350-horsepower outboard motors to a purchase made by Marcel Quintero, who is suspected of having ties to the cartel, according to a March 31 filing in the US District Court in the Central District of California.
The presence of GPS devices, food wrappers, literature with Spanish writing, and fuel tanks containing gasoline are some of the tell-tale signs that a panga was used for smuggling, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office investigator Sergeant Marc Hammill, who has investigated the vessels since 2015. Once on shore, Hammill and the DEA both said, panga operators sometimes meet up with people connected to local gangs, who help distribute the contraband.
"We're finding large amounts of weight," Hammill said. "It's almost become a standard now."
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