These are bad times to be a Mexican marijuana smuggler. High-quality homegrown cannabis is available throughout the United States. And in almost half the country, a weed deal is now a legal transaction on which the government collects taxes.
This means prices for Mexican-grown cartel pot are lower than ever. So low that some marijuana farmers in Sinaloa are giving up. “It's not worth it anymore,” one longtime grower told the Washington Post last month, in an interview that's becoming famous. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”
This isn't all good news. Instead of weed, the Sinaloa farmers are growing poppies. Mexican drugs head in only one direction, north, which means more heroin is headed towards the United States.
Meanwhile, the weed is still coming.
In Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey counties, it's been a common sight: abandoned fiberglass-hulled boats called pangas washing up on shore, sometimes with an enormous load of weed still aboard. Usually, the sailors or smugglers are nowhere to be found. When they are caught in the act, they're almost always Los Angeles-area Mexican men (once, in 2012, a panga skipper rammed a Coast Guard vessel and killed an officer, the first time a Coast Guard sailor had been killed on duty in almost 90 years).
The panga boat phenomenon has been steadily creeping north over the past few years, with a few incidents in Santa Cruz County in 2013 (one haul netted 1,200 pounds). With last week's discovery of an abandoned boat and SUV — stuffed with 1,000 pounds of pot, wrapped up in bales — on a state beach in Pescadero in San Mateo County, panga boats have now appeared twice in the Bay Area over the past six months.
Why is this happening? The given theories are two: Better border security along the fence separating the U.S. and Mexico pushes drug-runners onto the water; and increased Coast Guard patrols farther south sends boats farther north to elude authorities.
Since October, 70 pangas have been seized by authorities, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported — and using the law enforcement metric that only 10 percent of what goes out is intercepted, that's hundreds of boats offloading drugs on California beaches.
The problem with pangas is that they are terrific boats. They're cheap, fast, and durable. They're seaworthy in all kinds of conditions and limited in range only by the amount of fuel that can be loaded on board — meaning a boat setting sail near Ensenada in Baja could in theory reach Seattle. Panga boats “changed the world,” as Boating magazine put it — and since their fiberglass hulls thwart radar, they've had major influence over the drug-running game.
But why here? Bringing weed to the Bay Area makes no sense. This is a weed-producing region. Mexican brick has no value here. The thinking is that the Bay Area is merely a transport hub and the marijuana brought in by boat is repackaged and redistributed throughout the country. Though to where? Good question: The DEA seizes more pot plants in Kentucky than any other state save one, California.
The country has no need for imported weed. But none of this would happen without an economic incentive. And Mexican weed is so cheap nowadays that there's no reason not to risk a run up the coast, even if the product ends up bobbing in the surf.
The same farmer interviewed by the Post said that he now gets about $25 per kilogram of weed. That would mean that a 1,000-pound load washing up on Bay Area shores only cost drug-runners $11,500 to buy.
Add another $40,000 for the boat and the engines, so even with low-quality weed going for $150 an ounce in the strictest Midwest states, that's a decent profit margin — even after distribution and transportation cost.
A colleague of mine has another theory. The marijuana is just a decoy, and the smugglers are bringing something else in: costlier drugs, or even people. Maybe. Either way, it seems a safe bet that the pangas will keep coming.