LOS ANGELES – A Mexican national who arrived in Southern California on board a marijuana-laden, panga-style boat that came ashore 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. He and two other Mexican national males were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection border patrol agents Jan. 15 after their panga, a small watercraft used by commercial fishermen, landed in the Deer Creek area of Los Angeles County.
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 Orange County Sheriff’s Department is part of a multi-agency team that is stepping up efforts to target the escalating volume of maritime smuggling in the Los Angeles area by expanding the use of marine patrols, land-based surveillance and collaboration with the Mexican government.
The crackdown is being overseen by the Department of Homeland Security’s Central California Maritime Agency Coordination Group, which is comprised of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, CBP’s Office of Air and Marine, Office of Field Operations, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, and several state and local law enforcement agencies.
So far in fiscal year 2012 (Oct. 1, 2011 through June 26, 2012), authorities say 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, officials said.
Collectively, these 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.
An investigation into the Deer Creed incident by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations 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 load originated in the Ensenada area.
“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, officials said.
By GREG HARDESTY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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