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Narcotics
06/08/2016

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Federal jury convicts panga pilot of smuggling nearly 2 tons of marijuana from Ensenada to Santa Barbara County

LOS ANGELES – A resident of Tecate, Mexico, has been found guilty of federal drug trafficking charges for piloting a “panga” boat carrying nearly two tons of marijuana from Ensenada to the United States.

Jose Guadalupe Zepeda-Ramirez, 24, was convicted June 2 following a three-day trial of two felony counts – conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute marijuana and possession with the intent to distribute marijuana.

Zepeda and another man – Miguel Rodriguez-Doranme, 39, of La Paz, Mexico – were discovered March 27 near a panga that had landed on a private beach near Hollister Ranch, just west of Gaviota. Pangas are open-bowed fishing vessels that are often used by smugglers bringing marijuana north from Mexico.

The ensuing investigation was spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with substantial assistance provided by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection - Border Patrol, the California Highway Patrol and the California National Guard.

According to the evidence presented at Zepeda’s trial, the two men brought the marijuana from Ensenada during a six-day journey. The men had planned to meet a second crew that would off-load the marijuana for further distribution. The plan was thwarted when Zepeda and Rodriquez were spotted while landing on Alegria Beach. They were detained by a Hollister Ranch security guard until law enforcement arrived. The investigation revealed the panga was carrying more than 3,650 pounds of marijuana.

“Law enforcement is working hard at curtailing the smuggling of drugs on panga boats,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “We will continue to enforcement efforts by prosecuting those who engage in this dangerous method of smuggling.”

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, who presided over Zepeda’s trial, is scheduled to sentence the defendant Sept. 19. As a result of his conviction, Zepeda faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison, and he could be sentenced to a maximum term of life.

“This case and the subsequent conviction are a direct result of the ongoing collaborative efforts by HSI, together with its federal and local partners, to detect and deter maritime smuggling,” said Edward Owens, deputy special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. “Maritime smuggling poses both a security and a public safety concern and we’re continuing to use all of the resources and tools at our disposal to address this threat.”

Rodriguez, who previously pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count, is scheduled to be sentenced  Aug. 1, at which time he will face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 06/09/2016