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Cracking down on West Coast drug smugglers

West Coast arrests of drug smugglers are on the increase, say US Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA) spokesmen. Two factors are involved, these officials believe: (1) diversion of some smuggling operations from the East Coast because of recent successful crackdowns there and (2) stepped-up efforts on this coast by the Coast Guard, DEA, and US Customs.

Operations on this side of the country could be even more effective, says George Halpin, West Coast regional director of the DEA, if a proposal pending in Congress is approved. The bill -- a version of which has been passed by the House of Representatives -- would permit US Navy and Air Force planes with sophisticated electronic gear to spot suspicious vessels for the drug-enforcement authorities. This would be done while on regular reconnaissance and training missions. Coast Guard vessels would follow up on the information.

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There is not a great deal of specific evidence so far that East Coast smugglers have moved their operations into the Pacific area. But Mr. Halpin notes that one individual arrested when a marijuana "mother ship" was seized off the California coast earlier this year had been arrested twice by East Coast authorities.

Another ship was seized July 29 southwest of San Francisco, suspected of having delivered some 18 tons of marijuana to four small boats in nothern Puget Sound, Wash. Ten persons were arrested when those boats were seized.

Acting upon intelligence reports indicating greater smuggling activity on the West Coast, drug enforcement authorities there began beefing up their effort.

Halpin and Comdr. Walter John, chief of the intelligence and law enforcement branch of the 12th Coast Guard district, both point out that it is easier to land marijuana on the Pacific coast than on the Atlantic coast. That is because there are no natural "choke points," such as the Strait of Florida, on the Western shoreline. Although some of the smuggling vessels pass through the Panama Canal, there is seldom any obvious justification for inspecting their cargoes at that busy facility, Halpin says.

One boost to the drug-enforcement effort was the transfer of a Coast Guard cutter from Atlantic to Pacific duty a little over a year ago. Comdr. Stephen Leane, chief of maritime law enforcement for the Coast Guard commander of Pacific areas, is studying the situation to determine whether manpower and vessels should be shifted from fisheries supervision off Oregon and Washington and in the Gulf of Alaska to help in the fight against drug smugglers.

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