LOS ANGELES, CA (CBS) - When a Coast Guard helicopter spotted a Mexican fishing boat loaded with marijuana, the drug smugglers started tossing bales of pot into the ocean. The waters off the California coast are now one of the prime drug routes from Mexico to the U.S.
Admiral Karl Shultz says, "This is challenging for us, as this increase goes up, we're trying to step up our game."
Admiral Shultz says intercepting drugs has always been part of the Coast Guard's mission but it's never been this widespread or this dangerous. Last week one of his guardsmen, Terrell Horne, was killed when a Mexican drug boat rammed an inflatable Coast Guard boat off the coast of Santa Barbara. He says, "I would say they're dangerous folks working for very dangerous criminal organizations that are looking to perpetuate illegal activity in our waters that concerns me."
Better security at the land border between the U.S. and Mexico has pushed the cartels to the water. They often hire Mexican fisherman who load their boats known as pangas with up to 8,000 pounds of pot. Claude Arnold, Special Agent, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement says, "They're doing the work of the Sinoloan drug cartel which controls this drug smuggling corridor and so they're being offered large amounts of money to smuggle drugs."
In the past year from Oct. 2011 to Sept. 2012, authorities seized 102,000 pounds of marijuana off the California coast. That's nearly five times as much as the year before of 22,000 pounds.
The Coast Guard is having to quickly adapt to larger drug boats that are able to travel greater distances. Lt. Jennifer Osburn with the U.S. Coast Guard says, "There could be two people on board, there could be 8 to 10 people on board just depending on what operation they're carrying out at that particular time."
In 2008, drug runners were landing mainly in San Diego. By 2010 they were as far north as Los Angeles and this year they have moved nearly 400 miles up the coast to beach towns no one ever thought would be on a drug route.
Because the drug smugglers are now heading further north and further off shore, they're often sending two boats: one for the drugs, and one for fuel. Sometimes they off-load the drugs onto pleasure boats hoping to get to shore undetected.