A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine crew fired warning shots to stop a panga boat suspected of smuggling drugs off the coast of San Diego over the weekend.
Late Saturday night, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft detected a panga about 24 nautical miles off the coast of La Jolla. They said it appeared to be headed toward Santa Catalina Island at "a high rate of speed" and likely contained bales of marijuana.
After the Coast Guard crew spotted the boat, they called in the help of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. A Blackhawk helicopter flew in to assist, along with crews from two San Diego Office of Air and Marine Midnight Express interceptor boats, officials said.
Depite efforts to stop the vessel, officials said the panga continued and the people on board were seen hoisting bales into the water.
Abiding by a structured protocol to ensure the safety of the public, crews and suspects, warning shots were fired at the boat by a Blackhawk air crew member using a mounted bolt action rifle, making it a first for this side of the country.
“This is the first time on the west coast that we’ve deployed warning shots from an air asset down to the water,” said Mitch Pribble, Director of Air Operations for CBP in San Diego.
“You always want a vessel to stop when they are first directed to do so. However, when a suspected criminal chooses to flee, the ability to fire those warning shots gives us another option that can be used to get them to stop before they become a greater danger to law enforcement personnel, innocent civilians on the water, and themselves.”
CBP said the boat stopped immediately after the shots were fired across the panga's bow.
"After the panga stopped, the first CBP Midnight Express vessel arrived and the crew took the three men aboard into custody," a release from CBP said. "The three men were later turned over to U.S. Border Patrol agents for processing."
Once the suspects were apprehended and the boat was seized, the Coast Guard Cutter Pike and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Sector San Diego searched for the bales the men had tossed into the ocean, which officials said likely contained marijuana.
Anyone with information about maritime smuggling or suspicious activity along California's coast is asked to contact the Joint Harbor Operations Center at (800) 854-9834.