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Killing shows smugglers' brazenness

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 8:42 p.m.

SAN DIEGO — The killing of a Coast Guardsman whose crew was chasing a vessel suspected of being laden with drugs appears to be the latest example of how smugglers are venturing farther north in a game of cat-and-mouse along the California coast.

Two Mexican nationals — Jose Meija Leyva and Manuel Beltran Higuera — were charged on Monday in Los Angeles with killing a federal officer while the officer was on duty.

Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, 34, died on Sunday upon being struck in the head by the suspect vessel near the Channel Islands, west of Los Angeles and about 180 miles northwest of the U.S.-Mexico border.

At least six people aboard suspected smuggling vessels have been killed since the 2010 fiscal year.

The Halibut, an 87-foot patrol cutter based in Marina del Rey, was dispatched when the suspect vessel was spotted traveling without lights by a Coast Guard C-130 plane near Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands, the Coast Guard said. Authorities sent a helicopter from San Diego.

The cutter contains a rigid-hull, inflatable boat that is about 16 to 18 feet long, said Coast Guard spokesman Adam Eggers. The smaller boat is routinely used on missions that require more speed and agility than the cutter can deliver.

As Horne and his team approached in the inflatable boat, the suspect vessel gunned its engine, knocking Horne and a second crew member into the water, Eggers said. The other crew member was treated for minor injuries and two others aboard the inflatable boat were unharmed.

Eggers said waiting for the vessel to make land would have introduced other risks and logistical challenges. The Coast Guard's mandate, he said, is to interdict at sea.

“As of right now, there are absolutely zero questions about whether they followed proper protocol,” Eggers said.

Authorities described the suspect vessel as a “panga,” which are known in Mexico as old, single-engine wooden vessels typically about 25 feet long. Eggers declined to describe the suspect vessel or say if it contained any drugs.

In growing numbers, smugglers are turning to California seas to bring people and drugs to the United States from Mexico.

The number of Border Patrol agents on land has doubled in the past eight years and hundreds of miles of fences and other barriers have been erected, driving smugglers to the Pacific Ocean.

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