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Seven Charged After CBP Stops Attempt to Smuggle More Than One Ton of Marijuana off Catalina Island

Release Date: 
August 24, 2012

San Diego - Marine Interdiction Agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine (OAM) stopped a marijuana smuggling attempt early Tuesday morning off the coast of Catalina Island, seizing more than one ton of marijuana and catching seven people aboard a sailboat and a panga both involved in the scheme.

CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) Marine Interdiction agents return to Oceanside harbor with a seized panga-style boat and four of the seven men apprehended in a maritime drug smuggling attempt.

CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) Marine Interdiction agents return to Oceanside harbor with a seized panga-style boat and four of the seven men apprehended in a maritime drug smuggling attempt.

On August 22, a marine interdiction crew was on patrol in a Midnight Express interceptor boat just south of Catalina Island, about 80 nautical miles from San Diego and about 45 nautical miles from Los Angeles/Long Beach.

At about 3 a.m., the crew spotted a sailboat in the area. The crew of the sailboat signaled with a flashing light in the direction of the OAM vessel, and the marine interdiction agents boarded the sailboat.

On board the sail boat, the agents discovered three persons, as well as a loaded shotgun, a .40 caliber pistol, and night vision equipment.

Shortly after the encounter with the sailboat, 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 swap illegal contraband from boat to boat.

The suspected maritime drug smugglers failed to transfer their contraband to a 34-foot pleasure craft while at sea.

The suspected maritime drug smugglers failed to transfer their contraband to a 34-foot pleasure craft while at sea.

At about 5:45 a.m., the air interdiction agents in the Blackhawk spotted a panga with two engines, occupied by four persons and loaded with bales of possible contraband heading northeast, and located about five nautical miles from the location where the sailboat had been intercepted.

Soon after the Blackhawk spotted the panga, the individuals on board changed course and began dumping bales overboard.

Approximately 45 minutes later, a second OAM marine interdiction crew intercepted the panga, and after a brief chase, stopped the vessel.

Agents recovered 130 packages of marijuana, weighing about 2,357 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 both 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 Homeland Security Investigations (ICE 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 suspects, who are charged in a criminal complaint with importation of a controlled substance, made their initial appearances in federal court Thursday afternoon. From the sailboat, the defendants are: Jeremy Alan Brislin, a 40-year-old U.S. citizen and resident of Huntington Beach, Calif.; Terrance Joseph Hirchag, a 46-year-old U.S. citizen and resident of San Clemente, Calif.; and Andrew Matthew Empson, a 49-year-old U.S. citizen and resident of Long Beach, Calif. From the panga, the defendants are Carlos Santana-Diaz, a 36-year-old Mexican citizen, and resident of Sonora, Mexico; Ramon Zuniga-Juarez, a 20-year-old Mexican citizen and resident of Sinaloa, Mexico; Joel Amabisca-Arillano, a 34-year-old Mexican citizen and resident of Sonora, Mexico; and Jesus Beltran-Zuniga, an 18-year-old Mexican citizen and resident of Tijuana.

A complaint is a charging document. The defendants are presumed innocent until the government meets its burden in court of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

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, Homeland Security Investigations (ICE 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 ICE 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.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control, and protection of our Nation's borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.

Last modified: 
February 9, 2017