Updated Feb. 17, 2022
The saga of the former Coronado drug smuggling ring known as the Coronado Company is one that many locals know well, but hearing islanders talk openly about it has been rare. Now, a group of Coronado High School (CHS) graduates and a media producer aim to bring the tale to a larger audience, and they’re looking for contributors to help bring it to life.
In December 2021, the team, which works under the name CoroCoLLC, launched a new website as the hub for all news relating to the ongoing media project; it is also a space for people to share their own stories. Anyone interested in submitting anecdotes, documents, or photos relating to the people or events of the Coronado Company is encouraged to use the site’s submission form with the option to remain anonymous if desired.
The smuggling ring these contributions will focus around operated in Coronado from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, running hundreds of tons of Mexican marijuana into the U.S. with the help of local high school students and their former Spanish teacher, Lou Villar. Eventually, they had netted over $100 million. The team behind CoroCoLLC has been collecting information on the time period for years already; a podcast series is in the works, and a potential extended streaming series could follow.
While the project’s premiere date is yet to be announced, the team’s media producer, Trey Scott, expects a great deal of public interest in light of the traffic the new website has already garnered; Joe Balla agrees. A San Diego native, 1971 CHS graduate, and the project’s executive producer, Balla is currently working with a talent agency to probe various options for realizing the series. “Bottling magic,” he says of what they hope to achieve.
Balla refers to a time when Southern California was swept up in the so-called “Summer of Love” of 1969, the revolutionary era of Beach Boys, Beatles, and an emerging surf culture. Lee Strimpel, project contributor and himself a former member of the Company, remembers a simpler Coronado as seen through a teenager’s eyes. “At that time, we didn’t have any stop signs except across Orange Avenue,” says Strimpel. “Our hobby, other than going to Mexico on weekends, was cruising, finding some guy to go buy us some beer and cruising the island at 25 cents a gallon, driving along all night long.”
In the early days, several Coronado Company members actually paddled marijuana bales across the border from Tijuana to Coronado; a small group was eventually arrested and served jail time for their connections to the ring. Strimpel has, in the past, shared his story to CHS classes in hopes that students might better understand the potential consequences of their actions. Now, he helps run a Montana ranch that supports wounded veterans.
Strimpel has also recently been featured in an episode of National Geographic’s “Trafficked” podcast series. However, with the new project, he has specific ideas about what he’d like to get across. “Who can tell the story? Some of the legal guys are still around you know, but most of our key people have passed away,” he says. This includes his friends Bob Lahodney and Eddie Otero, also part of the ring and who have passed away in recent years. “I’ve made a commitment to both of those guys in that when it’s storytelling time, I’ll make sure that they’re honored and the truth is told about who they were,” he says.
Over the decades, others have been interested in telling this story on a public scale, but the team thinks this project will be different. “It’s a story that everybody thinks should be told, but the attempts thus far to tell it have fallen short. I think all of us agree on that,” says Joe Ditler, 1969 CHS graduate, author of the book “Coronado Confidential” and longtime consultant for the project. “It’s about time that the true story of the Coronado Company was told.”