Drug smugglers turning to area shoreline

Immigrant and drug smugglers are increasingly turning to the ocean as the easiest route into the United States, with arrests and seizures jumping sharply over the past 18 months, it was reported Sunday.

Rickety fishing boats have been found abandoned, outboard motor and all, along the La Jolla shoreline and, last week, about 400 pounds of pot washed up on the beach in Del Mar.

Two 20-something U.S. citizens aboard a boat loaded with about 650 pounds of pot were arrested about 4 miles off Mission Bay Saturday afternoon.

More than 310 people have been arrested on suspected smuggling boats since October 2007, more than triple the number from the previous 18-month time period, the Los Angeles Times reported. Marijuana seizures have also surged, with more than 29 tons seized in the same time frame, a more than tenfold rise from the previous period, the newspaper reported.

Immigrants are reportedly paying around $4,000 each to be smuggled into the United States by water. And though the ocean near the border is closely watched -- and patroled -- smugglers appear ready to the take the risk.

Keley Hill of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego helms a 39-foot “go fast’’ boat fitted with gigantic outboards that produce about 900 horsepower.

“This is a fast boat,” Hill says. “But it’s a big ocean.”

Some immigrants who have been caught have told investigators they departed from the village of Popotla, near Rosarito Beach, where dozens of brightly colored vessels sit on a small beach lined with shanties and seafood stands.

Smugglers often head for the first beach in the U.S., typically Imperial Beach or Silver Strand State Beach. Others motor across the strait to the Coronado Islands, where they switch vessels before heading farther north toward marinas or beaches at Mission Beach, Del Mar or Torrey Pines State Beach, authorities told The Times.

Responsibility for intercepting the boats lies with the U.S. Coast Guard and CBP, which together have a fleet of about 10 vessels along with at least three helicopters for air support.

Some smuggling boats are short of seaworthy. Last year, one vessel lost power 20 miles out to sea and drifted for two days with 15 people aboard, before the Coast Guard rescued the group.