'Drug Subs' Used To Smuggle Narcotics Into US
SAN DIEGO -- The drug sub in the Eastern Pacific didn’t have a chance once it was spotted. A U.S. Coast Guard officer recorded the chase on video.
Shouts and the loud rush of the wind were heard as the gap between the two shrank. Without slowing, the hatch on the illegal vessel opened, and the smugglers climbed out.
Foiling the plans of drug cartels is dangerous work, so the identities of some of the Coast Guard officers who talked to 10News will not be revealed.
"When I first saw them, I was surprised that they even had the technology to build something like this," said one Coast Guard officer tasked with bringing in the smugglers.
He said these so-called "drug subs" don't submerge completely. They ride very low in the water by using the tons of cocaine they carry as ballast. The military calls them self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS).
Coast Guard Commanding Officer Erich Telfer of the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team said they are incredibly hard to spot.
"They camouflage it and it has only a foot or two of space above the water," said Telfer.
They're so elusive, the first one captured was nicknamed "Big Foot" because it was talked about, but never seen. Now it’s on display on a Navy base in Key West, Fla., far from its birthplace in South America.
Law enforcement believes drug subs are built in the jungles of Colombia. Traffickers spend up to $2 million to have them secretly made.
Clarence Koehler is a master San Diego boat builder and the president of Koehler Kraft. He's seen photos of drug subs and said they look simple enough to build.
"It's definitely doable," said Koehler. "The basic raw materials are probably not that hard to come by.”
These drug subs come in a range of sizes. A 60-foot drug sub was caught near Guatemala. Over six tons of cocaine worth almost $200 million was confiscated.
"They're very difficult to intercept," said another Coast Guard officer.
These officers face a tough task. It's estimated there will be 90 drug subs launched this year. The Coast Guard doesn't do it alone. They are a key part of Joint Interagency Task Force counternarcotics operations.
"Traditionally they have about four members on board," described one Coast Guard officer. "One guy to drive, one guy to look out. The other two will rest and they switch."
"The comfort level is very low. There's room for them barely to move around. A little bit of food, a little bit of water and other personal effects."
"Every time I've encountered one of these, they've always ended up sinking it," said another officer. "Or what we call scuttling."
A scuttling valve is a standard feature in drug subs. Once it's popped, water rushes in. The sinking sub and its cargo is soon gone.
However, Congress passed legislation in 2008 that still allows prosecution -- even if the evidence sits on the bottom of the ocean. It’s called the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008.
A criminal conviction under that law is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine.
"If we can stop the drugs down there, where they're in loads that are multiple tons per ship before they land and break them up into smaller amounts to be smuggled across the land border, it has a better effect and it's a better use of our resources," said Telfer.
Telfer's unit is based in San Diego, but patrols the waters off Central and South America. The diesel-powered drug subs have a 3,000 mile range.
"That's the distance from Los Angeles to New York. That's a huge area to cover with limited resources," said Telfer.
"Do you make a difference?" asked 10News reporter Mitch Blacher.
"Absolutely," said Telfer. "If I thought we didn't make a difference I’d call the commandant and I'd tell him to shut the whole thing down. Do we stop everything? No, but we stop an awful lot."
In 2009, Telfer's unit seized 64 tons of cocaine.
May 23, 2010
video imbedded in the linked news story
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