Drug smugglers pose greater challenge in move from land to sea

(CBS News) Federal agents arrested 25 people Monday along the Pacific Coast near Los Angeles. They were coming ashore in a type of fishing boat often used to smuggle drugs. Much of the action in the war on drugs has shifted from land to sea. CBS News' Ben Tracy went out with the Coast Guard to see the new front line.

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.

Coast Guard Adm. Karl Shultz said, "This is challenging for us, as this increase goes up, we're trying to step up our game."

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, Senior Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III, was killed when a Mexican drug boat rammed an inflatable Coast Guard boat off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Shultz said, "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 of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said, "They're doing the work of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which controls this drug smuggling corridor. And so they're being offered large amounts of money to smuggle drugs."

From October 2011 to September 2012, authorities seized 102,000 pounds of marijuana off the California coast -- nearly five times as much as the year before, in which searches collected 22,000 pounds. The Coast Guard is working to quickly adapt to larger drug boats that are able to travel greater distances.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jennifer Osburn said, "There could be two people on board, there could be eight to 10 people on board, just depending on what operation they're carrying out at that particular time."

Asked if you have to be able to respond to almost anything, Osburn said, "Absolutely."

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.

Arnold said, "It's a cat and mouse game but we don't give up."

Because every day there are more boats headed north filled with drugs.