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7 charged after thwarted smuggling attempt involving more than a ton of marijuana off Southern California coast

7 charged after thwarted smuggling attempt involving more than a ton of marijuana off Southern California coast
7 charged after thwarted smuggling attempt involving more than a ton of marijuana off Southern California coast

SAN DIEGO – Seven suspects made their initial appearances in federal court Thursday on drug charges stemming from their alleged role in an attempt to smuggle more than a ton of marijuana into the United States from Mexico onboard a sailboat and panga interdicted off the coast of Catalina Island.

The case began unfolding early Wednesday when a marine interdiction crew from U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine (OAM) on an interceptor boat spotted a sailboat off Catalina Island. The crew of the sailboat signaled by flashing a light in the direction of the OAM vessel, and the marine interdiction agents boarded the sailboat.

On board the sailboat, the agents discovered three persons, as well as a loaded shotgun, a .40 caliber pistol and night vision equipment. Shortly after the encounter, OAM launched a Blackhawk helicopter from San Diego to patrol the area, suspecting that the sailboat may have been involved with another vessel attempting to transfer illegal contraband from boat to boat.

At about 5:45 a.m., the air interdiction agents in the Blackhawk observed a panga carrying four individuals and loaded with bales of possible contraband heading northeast, about five nautical miles from the location where the sailboat had been intercepted. A short time later, the individuals on the panga changed course and began tossing bales overboard. Subsequently, a second OAM marine interdiction crew intercepted the panga, and after a brief chase, stopped the vessel.

Agents recovered 130 packages of marijuana, weighing more than 2,300 pounds, with an estimated street value of more than $1 million.

"We are beginning to see this as a more common tactic: smugglers attempting to move contraband from open hull panga boats to recreational vessels, such as this sailboat," said Keley Hill, director of Marine Operations for CBP in San Diego. "The smugglers think that when the recreational vessel moves in to shore, it will blend in with legitimate boating traffic off of the Southern California coastline and make it much more difficult for us to detect illegal activity."

OAM agents seized the panga and the sailboat, as well as the marijuana, and turned the seven suspects over to the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force (LA BEST), spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

"The surge in maritime smuggling activity here in Southern California represents both a security and a public safety threat and we are working closely with CBP and our other law enforcement partners to disrupt these schemes and bring those responsible to justice," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. "These latest arrests and the ensuing prosecution sentence should send a strong signal about the consequences facing those involved in this dangerous enterprise."

The seven defendants are charged in a criminal complaint with importation of a controlled substance. The suspects found aboard the sailboat were:

  • Jeremy Alan Brislin, 40, of Huntington Beach;
  • Terrance Joseph Hirchag, 46, of San Clemente; and
  • Andrew Matthew Empson, 49, of Long Beach.

The suspects arrested following the interdiction of the panga were:

  • Carlos Santana-Diaz, 36, of Sonora, Mexico;
  • Ramon Zuniga-Juarez, 20, of Sinaloa, Mexico;
  • Joel Amabisca-Arillano, 34, of Sonora, Mexico; and
  • Jesus Beltran-Zuniga, 18, of Tijuana, Mexico.

The LA BEST's investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The LA BEST was launched in 2008 to investigate a variety of maritime-related crime in the Los Angeles area, such as drug, alien, currency and weapons smuggling; trade fraud; and cargo theft. The LA BEST is made up of officers from nine federal, state and local agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations and U.S. Border Patrol; the Los Angeles Police Department; the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service; the U.S. Secret Service; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department; the Los Angeles Port Police; and the California Highway Patrol.

Maritime security efforts off the California coastline are being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security's Central California Maritime Agency Coordination Group. The group is comprised of HSI; CBP; the U.S. Coast Guard; and several state and local law enforcement agencies. The state and local partners include the California Highway Patrol; the California Department of Parks and Recreation; the sheriff's departments of Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties; and the Los Angeles and Long Beach police departments. The group is also receiving substantial assistance from members of the California National Guard's Counterdrug Program.