Coast Guards interdicts smugglers' semi-submersible

Published 30 July 2009

Latin American drug lords now rely on semi-submersibles to smuggle drugs into the United States; the other day, the USCG interdicts one semi-submersible in the Eastern Pacific

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Air and Marine’s surveillance aircraft were instrumental the other day in interdicting a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel in the Eastern Pacific. The CBP P-3 crew identified the semi-submersible off the coast of Colombia, and directed a U.S. Navy ship, helicopter, and U.S. Coast Guard boarding team to intercept the vessel. Upon seeing that they were being pursued, the four-person crew of the semi-submersible boarded an inflatable raft and scuttled their vessel.

Based on the size of the semi-submersible, this interdiction is estimated at 5,000 metric tons of cocaine. Including this interdiction, CBP’s P-3 aircraft have contributed to the disruption of over 100,000 pounds of cocaine during the last year, with an estimated street value of more than $1 billion.

The CBP P-3 program has led the way through many highly successful law-enforcement efforts to detect and interdict semi-submersibles in joint operations with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy,” said John Stanton, executive director for national air security operations for CBP’s Office of Air and Marine. “Similar to a submarine, these custom-built vessels operate with a significant portion of its hull below the waterline, making it difficult to detect. Maritime patrol aircraft, like the P-3s, have the best chances and track record of detecting these vessels.

The use of these vessels is an example of how drug smugglers are changing tactics to avoid detection. Drug trafficking organizations use semi-submersibles to transport large amounts of drugs and other contraband from source regions in South America to Central America, Mexico, and ultimately to the United States (for more on drug smugglers’ use of semi-submersible, see 18 June 2009 and 19 June 2009 HSNW).

To patrol the drug transit zone, CBP uses the long-range tracking capabilities of the P-3 to detect and pursue suspect criminal activity and contraband as it moves toward the U.S. border. The drug transit zone is several million square-miles in size, roughly twice the size of the continental U.S., and includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Once suspect activity is detected, the agents coordinate with CBP partner agencies through the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-South, headquartered in Key West, Florida, to deny drug traffickers the use of air and maritime routes.

Right now, drug trafficking organizations are using semi-submersibles to transport drugs to the U.S. for profit,” Stanton added, “but the ability of criminals to move payloads of this size also makes us more vulnerable to the movement of weapons of mass destruction and other threats of terrorism. We must continue to have a collaborative approach to supporting our partners in interdicting these dangerous vessels before they reach our borders.”