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U.S. officials seize 1 ton of marijuana, arrest 7 off Catalina

August 23, 2012 |  9:35 pm

U.S. border authorities seized more than one ton of marijuana and arrested seven people in connection with the high seas interception of two boats earlier this week near Santa Catalina Island, federal authorities said Thursday.

Authorities said the coordinated scheme was part of a new smuggling trend as Mexican criminal groups seek to transfer large marijuana loads onto recreational boats that more easily blend in with boating traffic as they sail into Southern California ports and marinas.

In Tuesday morning’s attempt, agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted a panga boat loaded with more than one ton of marijuana shortly after seizing a nearby sailboat that authorities suspected was going to be used to get the drugs on shore.

Three U.S. citizens were arrested on the sailboat: Jeremy Alan Brislin, 40, of Huntington Beach; Terrance Joseph Hirchag, 46, of San Clemente; and Andrew Matthew Empson, 49, of Long Beach. Agents also discovered a loaded shotgun, a .40-caliber pistol and night vision equipment.

The four people arrested on the panga were Mexican citizens.

As a CBP Blackhawk helicopter closed in, those aboard the panga boat were allegedly seen throwing the bales of marijuana overboard. The 130 packages of marijuana seized are worth an estimated $1 million, authorities said.

“We are beginning to see this as a more common tactic: smugglers attempting to move contraband from open hull panga boats to recreational vessels,” Keley Hill, director of Marine Operations for CBP in San Diego, said in a statement.

“The smugglers think that when the recreational vessel moves in to shore, it will blend in with legitimate boating traffic off of the Southern California coastline and make it much more difficult for us to detect illegal activity,” Hill said.

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-- Richard Marosi in San Diego

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