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Man tied to drug smuggling panga sentenced to nearly 6 years in prison

LOS ANGELES – A Mexican national who arrived in Southern California on board a marijuana-laden panga-style boat that came ashore north of Malibu in mid-January has received a nearly six-year prison term.

Pedro Lopez-Rocha, 29, was sentenced Monday in federal court to 70 months in prison. In March, Lopez pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana. Lopez and two other Mexican national males were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Patrol agents January 15 after their panga landed in the Deer Creek area. According to court documents, when the agents arrived on the scene, the defendants were in the process of unloading more than 45 bales of marijuana from the vessel.

The ensuing investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) revealed that, shortly before landing, Lopez sent a text message to an individual in the Los Angeles area advising that the boat was coming ashore. HSI's investigation further determined that the smuggling load originated in the Ensenada area of Mexico.

"This sentence should send a strong signal about the consequences facing those involved in this dangerous mode of smuggling," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. "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 our federal, state and local partners to disrupt these schemes and bring those responsible to justice."

The other two defendants charged in the case, Rafael Castillo-Juarez, 47, and Javier Lizarraga-Calderon, 48, also pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Castillo and Lizaragga were sentenced previously with each receiving one year and one day in prison. All three defendants are Mexican nationals and will face deportation upon completion of their prison sentences.

In response to the escalating volume of maritime smuggling in the Los Angeles area, authorities have intensified efforts to target the illegal activity, expanding the use of marine patrols, land-based surveillance and collaboration with the Government of Mexico.

Those efforts are being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security's Central California Maritime Agency Coordination Group. The group is comprised of HSI; CBP's Office of Air and Marine, Office of Field Operations and U.S. Border Patrol; 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.

So far in fiscal year 2012 (Oct. 1, 2011 through June 26, 2012), authorities advise there have been 116 recorded maritime smuggling incidents in Southern California, stretching from the San Diego area north to San Luis Obispo County. In addition, there have been 29 maritime smuggling attempts intercepted offshore. Collectively, those 145 encounters have resulted in the seizure of more than 80,000 pounds of marijuana, including the bales seized in the incident near Deer Creek.