Rear Adm. Karl Schultz, the 11th District commander, said the tiny Coast Guard is doing its best to optimize its resources but the challenge is "like a police cruiser in Cleveland responding to something in Atlanta."
Off California, smuggling vessels are typically spotted by planes from the Coast Guard or a federal agency, such as Customs and Border Protection, California National Guard or the Department of Defense. Coast Guard or CBP boats are then called to board suspicious vessels.
CBP is prohibited from firing on boats off the U.S. coast unless the pursuit begins within 12 miles of shore. The Coast Guard has no such constraints, so the onus has fallen on it as smugglers have ventured farther offshore.
The Sinaloa cartel has been loading marijuana bales onto 50-foot vessels as far south as the Mexican port of Mazatlan and running them up northern Baja California after taking control of that state's coastal territory, said Michael Carney, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's assistant special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego.
Smugglers driving three-engine boats have been landing along remote coasts of Northern California, reaching as far as the beach town of Santa Cruz, which is about 350 nautical miles from the border city of San Diego. That's a shift from the one-engine drug skiffs seen landing for years in San Diego County.
Support vessels carry fuel and supplies to go longer distances, and smugglers transfer loads onto U.S.-owned pleasure craft, believing they are less likely to raise suspicion than a foreign boat.
Papp, speaking at a defense conference this month in San Diego, said that the Coast Guard's resources to patrol the high seas and intercept threats are "woefully inadequate at this point."
Its aging fleet of larger cutters is being replaced with faster, more capable National Security Cutters, but the number of high endurance cutters best suited for the high seas has dropped from a total of twelve to eight and will remain that way. The service's operating budget will return to 2012 levels this year, but future years are uncertain.