Federal officials Wednesday said they have seized 1,662 pounds of marijuana and arrested three Imperial Beach residents, part of what agents called a “very sophisticated” smuggling ring.
Charles Hill, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s San Diego office, said as many as 10 more arrests may follow. The ring allegedly smuggled duffel bags of marijuana by boat from an undisclosed location in Baja to just south of the Silver Strand State Beach, where the marijuana was loaded into a van.
Officials said the smuggling operation went on for at least a year and may have gone on as long as five years.
Hill said the ring used a 21-foot fishing boat and 16-foot and 18-foot rubber boats to smuggle marijuana “at least two to three times per week.” He estimated that the ring made up to $500,000 a week. The value of the marijuana seized Sunday when the three alleged smugglers were arrested was put at $1.1 million.
Michael Solis, 33, of the 500 block 5th Street, Charles J. Iwashita, 30, of the 100 block Evergreen Avenue and James P. Taylor, 40, of the 1000 block Oneonta Avenue, all in Imperial Beach, were being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center after being charged in U. S. District Court Monday.
Bail for Solis was set at $120,000, at $150,000 for Iwashita and $75,000 for Taylor. A preliminary hearing was set for Wednesday.
Hill said several others suspects fled Sunday and are expected to be arrested based on information supplied by an undercover agent.
Hill said the smugglers worked this way: A rubber boat would be launched in Baja after being loaded with marijuana. Then it would signal the fishing boat, which would tow it to San Diego waters. Once there, the marijuana would be loaded into another rubber boat.
Hill said the marijuana was towed so that the fishing boat could cast the rubber boat adrift if the the smugglers were spotted.
The smuggling ring was cracked after a nine-month investigation started by the Coast Guard, which first picked up suspicious boat movements on radar near the Silver Strand.
The investigation was a combined effort of the DEA, the Coast Guard, Customs and the Internal Revenue Service under auspices of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.