At least a dozen times in the last year, small fortunes in illegal narcotics washed up on Texas beaches after being lost by seaborne smugglers scrambling for new ways into the United States, according to federal officials.
The drugs, wrapped in plastic and potentially worth millions of dollars on the streets, were turned in by beachcombers, fishermen, park rangers and deputies.
The lost loads popped up all along the coast — mostly cocaine, followed by marijuana and methamphetamine.
About 800 pounds of marijuana washed up on South Padre Island in one shot, 24 kilograms of cocaine in Jefferson County, and another similar-sized load of cocaine near a remote beach of High Island, according to Houston's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a coalition of law-enforcement agencies here and in coastal counties.
The latest known Texas find came in May, when a woman strolling near Galveston found a barnacled black bag with 37 pounds of cocaine pressed into bricks.
Federal officials contend the "wash-ups," as they are known, are among the strongest signals yet that traffickers are turning more to the sea to evade American efforts to secure the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
Drug trafficking organizations have been extremely adaptive and resourceful at shifting routes to evade law enforcement and rival traffickers, according to a late July report by Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office.
Adding to the woes, officials long have said that drug-trafficking cartels have enough cash to outspend them when it comes to buying the weapons, communications equipment and anything else they need to penetrate international transit zones.
'Somebody is hurting'
There is a string of theories about how the drugs ended up on the beaches. They were dumped by traffickers evading capture; bounced off a speed boat that hit a big wave while zipping up the coast; or floated up as the last signs of a boat forever lost at sea during a journey that went bad.
Somebody is hurting over those kilos of cocaine, said Sgt. Joaquin Cantu of the Kleberg County Sheriff's Office. I'd say the runners would be in a bit of hot water, especially if word got back to where they came from that they'd lost a load.
Traffickers take to the seas with a network of mother ships, high-speed motorboats and enclosed craft that ride low in the water and mimic the look of submarines.
For the first time, a fully operational submarine was seized from traffickers after it was found in an inland waterway along the Ecuador-Colombia border, authorities announced last month.
Under the cover of darkness, fast, open-hulled fishing boats hug the edges of the largely isolated Texas shore and leave loads in the dunes.
Precise locations can be determined by GPS and coordinated with four-wheel drive vehicles that later drive along the shores to pick them up.
There are many remote locations along the (region's) coastline which offer smuggling opportunities, notes a new report by the HIDTA coalition.
Beach visitors warned
The scope of maritime drug smuggling still remains one of the most significant intelligence gaps within the (region), it says.
DeDe Mladucky, chief ranger for Padre Island National Seashore, said rangers are well aware they face unknowns so close to Mexico.
We have some extra gear that some other park rangers might not carry, she said.
So far, there have been only a few close calls between traffickers and legitimate park visitors, she said.
As far as the drugs go, knock on wood, we have been pretty lucky, she said. Visitors have seen folks pull up on the beach in their launch boats and bury the stuff in the sand. When there is no moon out here, it is pretty dark.
Signs have been posted along the beach warning visitors of possible smuggling activity due to the proximity of the border.
The quantities of drugs turning up along Texas beaches are a reminder of the Wild West days of southern Florida, when speedboats and aircraft would try to push through the porous shores there.
Calhoun County Sheriff B.B. Browning, said he is concerned that with the traffickers will come more danger.
We gotta be prepared for it, he said. They don't want to be seen or heard, he said of the traffickers. They could take drastic measures - I fear for the public's safety at times.
By DANE SCHILLER
Aug. 4, 2010