SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized more than a ton of marijuana from a boat near Catalina Island and arrested seven people who all appeared in federal court Thursday.
A marine interdiction team from the agency's Office of Air and Marine spotted a sailboat while patrolling south of Catalina Island, about 80 nautical miles from San Diego, about 3 a.m. Wednesday, Jackie Wasiluk of Customs and Border Protection said.
The sailboat crew signaled with a flashing light. Agents then boarded and found three people, a loaded shotgun, a .40-caliber pistol and night vision equipment, Wasiluk said.
The people aboard the sailboat was suspected of attempting to swap contraband with those on another vessel and a helicopter was brought in to search the area.
"We are beginning to see this as a more common tactic - smugglers attempting to move contraband from open hull panga boats to recreational vehicles, such as this sailboat," said Keley Hill, director of Marine Operations in San Diego.
"The smugglers think that when the recreational vessel moves in to shore, it will blend in with legitimate boating traffic off the Southern California coastline and make it much more difficult for us to detect illegal activity."
About 5:45 a.m. Wednesday, as the Blackhawk helicopter spotted a two-engine panga loaded with marijuana bales about five nautical miles away, the boat's four occupants changed course and began dumping the bales overboard, Wasiluk said.
A second Customs and Border Protection crew stopped the panga after a brief chase and found 130 packages of marijuana weighing about 2,360 pounds with an estimated street value of more than $1 million, Wasiluk said.
Both boats were seized along with the marijuana and the seven suspects were turned over to the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force which investigates maritime-related crime in the Los Angeles area.
The suspects, who were charged with importation of a controlled substance, initially appeared in federal court Thursday afternoon, Wasiluk said.
Those from 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 from the panga were Carlos Santana-Diaz, 36, and Joel Amabisca-Arillano, both of Sonora, Mexico; Ramon Zuniga-Juarez, 20, of Sinaloa, Mexico; and Jesus Beltran-Zuniga, 18, of Tijuana.
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