Suddenly, the latest threat to the region’s tourism economy is not a great white shark or polluted beaches or even an economic slowdown.
It is the so-called Panga boat, an open vessel originally designed by Yamaha to help fishermen in third-world countries earn a better living. Pangas are sturdy, seaworthy and fast. From Somalia to California’s Central Coast, they have transcended their original purpose and become the tool of choice for pirates and smugglers.
In our region, smuggling typically means running drugs from Mexico to points as far north as San Luis Obispo County. The Panga connection turned deadly in recent days when a boat operating off Santa Cruz Island rammed an inflatable Coast Guard craft killing Terrell Horne, a petty officer stationed in Ventura County.
We join elected officials and law enforcement organizations as we condemn this brazen assault on our law enforcement community. Panga boat activity is a symptom of a larger problem that’s bringing about a resurgent round of gang activity to our shores. On Nov. 27, Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten unsealed a 35-count indictment that led to charges being filed against 27 individuals in a gang-related drug and drug-related extortion ring located primarily in Oxnard.
Since May, law enforcement officials have identified some four Panga boats washed up on the San Luis Obispo County coast.
It will be tempting for citizens of wealthy enclaves in our area or major players in the travel and tourism industries to dismiss these as isolated cases or events that have taken place far offshore and far from their venues. They would be wrong. Gangs and gang-related drug activities, along with the burgeoning business of Panga boat drug couriers, are a serious threat to a tourism-based economy that’s worth billions of dollars and that employs thousands of law-abiding citizens.
We urge members of the hospitality industry to take seriously the death of Officer Horne and urge our elected officials and our law enforcement chiefs to get even more serious about cracking down on drugs, drug-smuggling and gang activity. It spans the full sweep of our coastal communities. It is becoming more violent and more dangerous. It must be stopped.