Special report: Stopping maritime smuggling often starts 10,000 feet above the water

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SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations uses twin-prop airplanes called multirole enforcement aircraft to look for suspicious boating operations down below

Known as M.E.As, the agents who fly in them can be in the air for multiple hours along the Baja California coastline in international airspace, which is anything beyond 12 miles from the coast.

Crews often have to fly hundreds of miles to the west as smugglers try to outflank air patrols by staying away from the coastline.

“We fly over the land or over the ocean to detect boats using the radar and the camera. We can be high, low, medium, it depends on the weather and it depends on what we’re looking for,” said Detection Officer Ned Leonard.

This is a Multiple Enforcement Aircraft used by Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Branch. (Courtesy: CBP)

Leonard sits in the back of an MEA focused on monitors that relay what the plane’s camera is capturing down below.

He also operates other sophisticated equipment such as radar and technology that is deemed classified.

Leonard can see anomalies on the water and quickly zoom in to determine whether it might be a fishing boat or someone trying to smuggle humans and/or drugs into the U.S.

Ned Leonard is a Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Detection Officer. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

“Sometimes the cartels employ people who are experienced captains of a boat, they know full well how to fish, and sometimes they do fish or they do both things at once, they can smuggle and fish,” said Leonard.

Lately, withe more and more maritime smuggling events, Leonard and his crewmates have been busy.

“It has been busy, a lot of boats coming up with people, we have drugs as well,” said Leonard. “We can pick them up very far south, this is a good radar, we can see far out so it’s more than just eyes out the window it’s a long-range detection capability.”

Leonard pointed out they look out for boats transiting across the U.S. border or into U.S. waters that aren’t supposed to be there.

One route employed by smugglers is to load up their boats with drugs and launch them from the Gulf of California, sweeping around the tip of the Baja Peninsula and navigating north toward Central California. (KSWB)

Border Report has learned cartels are now loading up boats with drugs and launching them from deep in the Gulf of California before navigating around the tip of the Baja Peninsula and heading north, hoping to land somewhere in Central California, a journey that can take days.

CBP’s Air and Marine crew piloting Multiple Enforcement Aircraft off the coast of San Diego. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

“The bad guys aren’t fools, they watch the places where they end up getting caught and next time they’ll try something different and we try something different, and it keeps going this way where they modify their tactics and we modify ours,” said Leonard. “Right now it sometimes means we go out pretty far, they used to come into San Diego Point Loma area, now they may come into Malibu, Santa Barbara over even farther north.”

Leonard said being part of the interdictions is very rewarding for all the agents involved.

“You feel like you’re doing something for your country and maybe save some people too from the hazards of the smuggling business so it’s very satisfying, and maybe keep some drugs off the streets, out of the schools, that’s what motivates everybody here.”

Leonard added that sometimes he can’t but feel for the people on board the boats.

“A lot of times they’re out there the same distance we’re going in an aircraft but they’re going in a boat, which can take days, so they’re out there days away from home trusting the person that’s smuggling them to get them safely somewhere like Malibu. Sometimes they have no food or water on board, they have no lights normally, so imagine being out at sea with no lights for a few nights and maybe
you don’t know how to swim so it’s very dangerous, you always think of the people. In fact, we’ve had a couple of search and rescue events recently where we had to guide the Coast Guard to get someone in the water where they were swimming.”

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