Cocaine traffickers switch from boats to submarines as they swamp US with drugs

By KomodoMK · Oct 19, 2008 · ·
  1. KomodoMK
    Colombia's drug barons used to favour high-speed powerboats to export their deadly cargos, leading law enforcers on high-speed chases as they swamped America with narcotics.

    Now, in an attempt to evade American surveillance, they are diverting their smuggling trade beneath the waves. Coast Guard and military patrols have reported a dramatic increase in do-it-yourself "semi-submersible" vessels that evade radar and sonar, barely breaking the ocean surface as they creep through the Pacific or the Caribbean..

    According to new figures from the US Department of Homeland Security, such slow but stealthy voyages now account for 32 per cent of all maritime cocaine traffic between Latin America and the US. The American Coast Guard reported just 23 incidents involving submarines between 2000 and 2007, but 62 in the first nine months of this year alone.

    Each craft can carry anything up to 10 tons of cocaine, with a wholesale value of more than $250 million. But even though their maximum speed is usually no more than 13 knots, tracking them down is a challenge.

    "The ocean out there is so vast that looking for one of these things is like finding a needle in a haystack - in fact, it would probably be easier to find a needle in a haystack," admitted Michael Sanders of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

    "When we first started seeing them years ago they were kind of crude and home-built, but now they've become more sophisticated. These guys are starting to learn."

    In their attempts to detect and intercept the narco-subs, US Coast Guard and military squads are forced into sometimes death-defying situations. In one incident 350 miles off Guatemala last month, a Coast Guard boarding party climbed atop a submarine, only for the crew down below to suddenly thrust the engines into reverse in an attempt to throw them off, leaving them clinging for life to the exhaust pipes. Then the crew opened the scuttling valves to try to sink the vessel and attempted to escape through the conning tower, before they were overpowered.

    "Our guys were up to their necks in water, it was an extraordinarily dangerous situation," said Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neil of the US Coast Guard.

    "The operators of these vessels are directed (by their paymasters) to scuttle them in the event of discovery. Water rushes in, they can sink these things in minutes if not seconds. This stuff sinks to the bottom of the ocean, hundreds of millions of dollars worth, and we're left with no evidence to prosecute."

    Congress therefore passed legislation in July, now awaiting the president's signature, that will make it easier to prosecute crews even without the drugs being recovered. Law enforcers hope to use it as leverage to elicit information from captured crews that will lead them to the trafficking kingpins back in Colombia.

    The so-called narco-subs are built next to river estuaries in the jungles of Colombia and launched mainly from the country's Pacific coast, considered a smuggler's paradise for its secretive coves and miles of thick forest.

    Their hulls - usually under 100ft in length - used to be made from wood but now steel is the material of choice, topped off by fibreglass. Many are fitted with elaborate navigation equipment, radio communications and diesel engines that allow them to travel over 2,500 miles without refuelling.

    Construction can take a year and cost up to $1 million, with crews having to haul materials and equipment such as generators into the jungle and sleep in mosquito-infested camps.

    The vessels are classed as "semi-submersibles" because of their inability to dive and their reliance on snorkels that protrude just above the waves to provide air for the engines and crew. Of those that have been intercepted by anti-smuggling patrols, some travel with three inches of their structure above the waterline, while others are capable of going as much as 15ft below the surface.

    "Inside, they're pretty bare-bones affairs. There's no comfort, no amenities. They are deathtraps," said Mr Sanders. He said that while drug tycoons did not put out "press releases" on the numbers lost, he estimated that anything up to 50 per cent ended up being sunk or scuttled for one reason or other.

    The traffickers have also forged alliances with drug gangs in Mexico, which take delivery of cocaine shipments off their own country's coast, take it ashore and then across land borders into America.

    In the 1970s, the smugglers used to get their hauls into the US in hand-delivered briefcases or dropped from aircraft. When law enforcers began to catch up with them, they took to speedboats, fishing vessels and cargo containers.

    "It's a reflection of how successful we have been in detecting their other means of transports that now we have the semi-submersibles. They have been forced to these extreme measures," said Lt Cdr O'Neil.


    # Jacqui Goddard
    # Telegraph Online
    # October 19, 2008

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  1. NeuroChi
    This just goes to show that the drug war can only proceed in two different ways. Forward, or backward, and right now it's pushing forward, and fast.

    Great article. :cool:
  2. fiveleggedrat
    That photo is excellent!

    Swim has seen that type often. Not very common. The chunks are pretty pure on the inside.
  3. yumfatbig1
    Is that a photo of one of the submersible subs shaped to look like a big bag of coke?
  4. Synesthesiac
    Submarines? Bloody hell. Next thing they'll be using flipping satelites. Fair play though, whatever beats the system.

    I would not want to get in a homemade submarine though, I'll definately pass on that one. Boats with sails scare me enough!
  5. sylenth
    very funny article, classic, i love it.... they are clever as the evidence just dissolves in to the ocean if they get caught yet the law still wants to try find something to nail them with. only thing they would be able to charge them with would be travelling/operating an unseaworthy vehicle with out a licence.

    a nice little thorn in the side for those fighting the drug war.
  6. old hippie 56
    The Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 was signed into law in September. The statute makes it a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, to travel through international waters in the vessels, technically known as self-propelled semisubmersibles.

    Take a look at this law. Now, if I made a sub, I couldn't go thru international waters even if there was no drugs involved?

    Here is the whole text of the bill:


    7/29/2008--Passed House amended.

    Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 - Amends the federal criminal code to impose a fine and/or prison term of up to 15 years for knowingly operating or embarking in any submersible or semisubmersible vessel that is without nationality and that is navigating in, or has navigated into, through, or from, waters beyond the outer limit of the territorial sea of a single country or a lateral limit of that country's territorial sea with an adjacent country, with the intent to evade detection. Grants extraterritorial federal jurisdiction over violations of this Act.
    Makes it an affirmative defense to a prosecution under this Act that a vessel operated at the time of a violation was: (1) a vessel of the Untied States or lawfully registered in a foreign nation; (2) classed by and designated in accordance with the rules of a classification society; (3) lawfully operated in a government-regulated or licensed activity; or (4) equipped with and using an operable automatic identification system, vessel monitoring system, or a long range identification and tracking system. Specifies the documents required to conclusively prove an affirmative defense.
    Directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to promulgate or amend existing guidelines to provide adequate penalties for violations of this Act.
  7. Sven99
    Serious propaganda-esque quotes there. Amazing how the facts can be twisted to suggest that somehow drug smugglers using submarines is a drug war success. Its an arms-race between the smugglers and the enforcers. When they find a way to stop the submarines the smugglers will come up with a better plan. Maybe next it'll be fully submersible subs, complete with torpedoes. Scary thought.

    I also don't buy that 50% figure. Maybe the early ones, but I cant see them being used if they're that unreliable. $1million is a long term investment.
  8. AquafinaOrbit
    1Million is a lot but not really much for the wallets the cartels that actually employ these measures. Anyway good article, and that law does not seem to crazy to me. Hell a submarine that refuses to have a radio transmitter on it and is from no claimed nation might just be trying to attack some harbors or something for all we know.
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