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The Coronado Surfers Who Created A $100 Million Drug Ring

The book cover for "Deep Water" by Katherine Nichols.
Simon & Schuster
The book cover for "Deep Water" by Katherine Nichols.

"Deep Water" recounts the Coronado Company's improbable rise

The Coronado Surfers Who Created A $100 Million Drug Ring
The Coronado Surfers Who Created A $100 Million Drug Ring GUEST: Katherine Nichols, author, "Deep Water"

This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. It's a legend and a cautionary tale but Coronado company started out as teenage surface back in the 70s who got an amazingly improbable idea. They started smuggling packages of marijuana from Tijuana by swimming them is the border. It started out as a lark and became $100 million business forced a long run from the law and ended up with lengthy prison sentences. It also became folklore in the border region and now the Coronado company is the subject of a new book by Coronado native Kathryn Nichols. Her book is called deep water. Welcome to the program. Thank you. You start the book with Eddie Otero a 17-year-old swimmer at Coronado high school who gets an offer from a friend. What is he asked studio. It's a really strong swimmer. He's a surfer water polar player understands the ocean. His friend Lance asked him to swim a package of marijuana around the Mexican-American border for about $1000. That is what we are told which was huge money in those days. We can imagine the average salary was around $10,000. So from swimming the group expanded to using both and it got bigger and went on and on. What got them so involved in this. Was at the money or the adventure. They did not see past a little bit of pocket money a fun time and sharing some marijuana with their friends. That's how it all began. Along the way they realized that they could make their deals a little more effective if they had someone who spoke in Spanish. They recruited their teacher to help them and I thought we would just have him come down this one time pay him $50 and maybe give them some tacos for dinner. Sent him on his way. Lou was a genius and he saw the potential of this operation. He grew into the largest drug smuggling ring on the West Coast. Lou was a genius in terms of his leadership. His vision for the operation the logistical details. He understood distribution and differentiation. He understood scale and scope. He had a natural affinity for business. He also knew how to motivate the guys. He knew exactly where each person belonged to maximize his skills and he understood how to get the most out of them. Just like you did with his basketball and swimming teams when he coached at the highest. Were there no other games competing with them to sell marijuana in Southern California I am sure there were but these guys really understood the ocean so that is what differentiated them because they could go around the borders and did it differently. That was one piece. They had connections that other people did not. Later on they were really able to set themselves apart the tie stick trade because they had connections in Thailand. While there may have been competition. These guys excelled. Now you grew up in Coronado and you are going to Coronado high school about a decade after these guys graduated. What have you heard about them before you started researching this book. I heard all kinds of things. For one thing I hung out at the beach a lot so I was very tuned into the whole life I've seen what was happening down there. Of course in the 80s this is when the guys started getting caught and it started appearing in the news so I grew up around the story.. You mention the fact that after the explosion of this business the DEA started to get really interested in it. It did not escape the notice. The company members became fugitives. Where did they go? That is a hard question because they were all over. That's how they remain fugitives for someone because they were mobile. Kind of inching up the California coast they had a place in Maine and they stayed on the move from one thing. For a long time they ended up in Santa Barbara and they lived very large lives under assumed names and cash society said there were no records to be had and we have to remember that area. No cell phones or tracking the DEA was just coming about in 1973 and getting its resources together so they were constantly a step behind this very well-funded criminals. They did eventually get caught and went to federal prison. For how long? It different depending on each person and what he was willing to try to reduce his time because They did not really stay tight when it came to look it out federal jail time. A couple of them stood hard and fast with the principles and others realized that they could not survive in jail. This is a story about a drug smuggling ring but the book is being marketed to young adult. Do you have any problem with that. With what is out there today for teens I think it is mild-mannered in many ways. For one thing these guys were not violent. It is really about bringing in what they saw as a business to bring in a product that people could choose to use and by or not as they wished. If you luck out what is on CDs and podcast these days with 13 reasons why and things like that I think it is mild for teenagers but I have to specify that I did write it for adults and I hope teens will enjoy it to but it happens to be strategically marketed to teens but it deals with choices and consequences and I think it is good conversation starter especially with the fact that it was so frowned upon. There were so many resources devoted to curtailing smuggling and today it is legalized in seven or eight state. I think it can spark and interesting discussion. My guest will be speaking about her but Deepwater tomorrow night at the Coronado public library with former DEA agent Jim Conklin and former US attorney that both worked on the case. It was great speaking with you thank you.

It is now both a legend and a cautionary tale in one of San Diego's beautiful beach communities. The Coronado Company started out as a group of teenage surfers back in the 1970s who decided to swim across the U.S.-Mexico border with bundles of marijuana.

It started out as a lark, but became a sophisticated $100 million dollar business that involved smuggling from both Mexico and Thailand. The gang, led by former Coronado High School Spanish teacher Lou Villar, was eventually caught by federal drug enforcement agents.

Coronado native and journalist Katherine Nichols recounts the Coronado Company's ascent in her new book, "Deep Water." Nichols' father, Pete Riddle, served on the Coronado City Council and was later a state judge, and Nichols says his reputation and friendships with some of the case's prosecutors allowed for extensive reporting.


"Half of the time people called me back because they knew my father," Nichols said. "They were more forthcoming and willing to share anecdotes."

Nichols joined KPBS Midday Edition on Monday to discuss how Villar grew the drug ring without any management experience and the Coronado Company's life as fugitives in Northern California.

Author Event

Where: Coronado Public Library, 640 Orange Ave, Coronado

When: Tuesday, May 2, 6:00 p.m.

Cost: Free