The biggest challenge Coast Guard Sector San Diego faces on its local waterways is smuggling.
That’s according to Capt. Sean Mahoney, sector commander, who oversees 465 personnel, as well as boats and aircraft that carry out a variety of Coast Guard missions.
“There’s been a huge increase in smuggling since 2008 in the maritime environment, and that’s come from the tightening of the land border we have,” he said. “With that tightening, it’s pushed the smuggling out to sea.”
As of late July, more than 50 tons of marijuana had been seized at sea off the Southern California coast since October 2011, according to the Coast Guard.
Pangas, or small Mexican fishing vessels, are notorious for sneaking drugs up the coast.
"They will come north with either narcotics or migrants on board and make their landing on a beach," he said. “It’s a coordinated operation, met by a vehicle, van or truck. Folks get in that and go to a safe house."
The Coast Guard works with partners at the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Navy, Harbor Police and locals to counter those crimes.
But one growing challenge of being able to intercept drugs comes as a result of smugglers increasing the distances they are willing to travel to get drugs to their plotted destinations.
“We’ve pushed them out and they’re going beyond San Clemente,” said Mahoney, who hails from Fishkill, N.Y.
Some smugglers are veering as far as 150 miles offshore and all the way up to Santa Barbara, or an area covering the size of Pennsylvania.
“Even if we had seven assets out there it would be like having seven cop cars in the state of Pennsylvania," he said. "That’s a big challenge for us.”
There’s a push to make sure there is adequate coverage by air in order to gather intelligence and narrow down the smuggling route.
As Captain of the Port, he is responsible for the safe conduct of commercial maritime and recreational boating activity on all federally navigable waterways within an area that extends from 200 nautical miles offshore San Diego, then east to include the Colorado River and its surrounding lakes in Arizona, and portions of Utah and Nevada.
Mahoney assumed command in June 2011 and previously led search and rescue and crisis management in the mid-Atlantic region.
The Coast Guard, which has 42,000 active duty members, is the smallest of the five armed services — but it’s also becoming one of the hardest services to get into.
“It’s very, very competitive now," he said. "Many of our enlisted members are coming in with college degrees.”
Mahoney, an experienced helicopter pilot and 1987 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, says San Diego has three H-60 helicopters with glass cockpits.
“It’s a multi-mission aircraft. It has airborne use of force capability. So that gives us the M240 machine gun in the door for stopping vessels. We also have an M14 weapon we use,” he said.
The Coast Guard can also put tactical boarding teams on boats using its fast roping capability. Its arsenal of five small boats includes special purpose craft — law enforcement.
“They are very capable vessels for intercepting smugglers along the border here,” he said.
There are four patrol boats in San Diego, some of which are used for offshore counter smuggling patrols.
“They are frequently employed out there. Typically one of our patrol boats is out there at all times,” he said.
One of the tools used to detect drugs is a narcotics identification kit, which can identify various illegal substances, ranging from marijuana to cocaine to heroin, on vessels being inspected.
“We don’t know exactly what they may be and need to identify them to establish probable cause to continue the search of vessels,” he said.