Special Feature: Stopping Maritime Contraband Often Begins 10,000 Feet Above Water
SAN DIEGO (Report to the border) – U.S. Customs and Border Protection air and sea operations use twin-propeller planes called multi-purpose application aircraft to search for suspicious navigation operations down below
Known as MEA, the agents that fly there can be in the air for several hours along the Baja California coast in international airspace, which is over 12 miles from the coast.
Crews often have to travel hundreds of kilometers west as smugglers attempt to overrun air patrols by staying off the coast.
“We fly over the land or the ocean to detect boats using radar and cameras. We can be high, low, medium, it depends on the weather and what we are looking for, ”said detection officer Ned Leonard.
Leonard sits in the back of an MEA focused on monitors relaying what the plane’s camera is capturing below.
It also operates other sophisticated equipment such as radars and deemed classified technologies.
Leonard can see anomalies on the water and quickly zoom in to determine if it’s a fishing boat or someone trying to smuggle humans and / or drugs into the United States.
“Sometimes the cartels employ experienced boat captains, they know very well how to fish, and sometimes they fish or they do both at the same time, they can smuggle and fish,” Leonard said.
Lately, with more and more maritime contraband events, Leonard and his teammates have been busy.
“There were a lot of people, a lot of boats coming in with people, we also have drugs,” Leonard said. “We can detect them very far to the south, it’s a good radar, we can see far, so it’s more than eyes out the window, it’s a long-range detection capability.”
Leonard pointed out that they monitor ships passing through the US border or in US waters that are not supposed to be there.
Border Report has learned that the cartels are now loading ships with drugs and launching them from the depths of the Gulf of California before sailing around the tip of the Baja Peninsula and heading north, hoping to land something. leaves for central California, a journey that can take days.
“The bad guys aren’t fools, they watch the places they end up getting caught and next time they’ll try something different and we try something different, and it just goes on where they change their tactics and we let’s change ours, “Leonardo said. “Right now that sometimes means we go out quite far, they were coming to the San Diego Point Loma area, now they can go into Malibu, Santa Barbara even further north. “
Leonard said being part of the bans is very gratifying for all of the officers involved.
“You feel like you’re doing something for your country and maybe also saving some people from the dangers of smuggling, so it’s very satisfying, and maybe keeping some drugs off the streets, out of schools. , that’s what motivates everyone here. “
Leonard added that sometimes he can only have feelings for the people on the ships.
“A lot of times they’re the same distance over there that we’re going on a plane, but they go on a boat, which can take days, so they’re down there for days away from home trusting the person smuggling them to get them safely somewhere like Malibu. Sometimes they don’t have food or water on board, they don’t have light normally, so imagine being at sea with no light for a few nights and maybe
you don’t know how to swim so it’s very dangerous, you always think about people. In fact, we had a few search and rescue events recently where we had to guide the Coast Guard to get someone into the water they were swimming in.