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Panga boat carrying marijuana found on Santa Barbara County shore

Sheriff’s deputies said Tuesday they were looking for more suspects involved in an alleged smuggling operation that was interrupted off the Santa Barbara County coast with a beached panga boat, two men and two bales of marijuana in custody.

The boat was found by a resident walking his dog about 9 a.m. Monday at San Onofre Beach in Gaviota State Park. Authorities found one marijuana bale aboard the 30-foot vessel and a second one nearby, said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kelly Hoover. Each bale contained about 60 pounds of marijuana valued at $25,000.

The boat had two outboard motors and multiple drums of fuel aboard, Hoover said.

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When a sheriff’s helicopter searched the area, two men were observed walking away. Francisco Soltero, 32, and James Pierce, 38, both of Riverside, were arrested on suspicion of being in possession of and under the influence of a controlled substance and transporting marijuana for sale.

Hoover said investigators believe other suspects probably got away before the boat was discovered.

Though authorities cannot say exactly how many drug-smuggling panga boats have made it to the United States and successfully offloaded their cargo this year, officials have had some success recently in catching them before they head north from Central and South America.

In addition to simple panga boats, which are small, wooden crafts, smugglers are using rudimentary submarines built in the jungle, authorities said.

For the current fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the U.S. Coast Guard has seized more than 119,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than $1.8 billion and apprehended more than 215 alleged smugglers. That amounts to more than the previous three years’ total combined and the most in a single year since 2009, officials said.

On July 18, a Coast Guard crew aboard the 418-foot cutter Stratton seized more than six tons of cocaine worth an estimated $181 million from a partially submerged vessel in the Pacific Ocean.

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In June, another partially submerged vessel carrying 5,460 pounds of cocaine was stopped.

There have been 25 known semi-submersible interdictions in the eastern Pacific since 2006. The patrols are a joint effort between the Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and cooperating governments in Central America, officials said.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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