Photo: Lt. Stewart Sibert/United States Coast Guard, via Reuters
Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, 34, was killed last week off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., when smugglers rammed their 30-foot fishing boat into the small Coast Guard vessel he was on.

LOS ANGELES — The small, open-hull fishing boats head north from Baja Mexico, traveling at night, their navigation lights off. It is an old smuggling route, popular with tequila runners during Prohibition in the 1920s and then little used for nearly a century.

But as a result of a security crackdown along the border with Mexico, the waters off Southern California have again been teeming with smugglers in the last few years, as drug cartels seek new avenues to move illicit cargo into the United States.

Last week the resurgence claimed its first American life when smugglers rammed a small Coast Guard vessel with their 30-foot fishing boat, killing a Guard member who was thrown overboard.

“There’s been an uptick in smuggling at sea because we have been successful in making it difficult for smuggling organizations at the land border,” said Claude Arnold, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles. “They’re trying everything they can to get their products into the country.”

Episodes involving smugglers off the California coast have increased fourfold since 2008, with more than 200 smuggling vessels spotted by American law enforcement agencies during the last fiscal year. Marijuana seizures from maritime smugglers, meanwhile, were up fourfold from just one year earlier. And some smugglers are also carrying human cargo, circumventing the security along the land border for those with the means to pay for it.

Federal officials said there was no way to know precisely how many smugglers had successfully reached California’s shores, but they believe that “a larger share” of smugglers make it through. And the flow of drugs and people into the country from the sea has clearly undercut some of the progress the authorities have made in blocking off overland supply routes.

In just a few years, officials said, drug and human trafficking off the coast here has grown into an elaborate, highly lucrative and increasingly dangerous operation, as smugglers venture farther out to sea and farther north along the coast in search of safe places to deliver their cargo undetected.

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