Drug smugglers now use minisubs; terrorists may use them, too

Published 18 August 2008

Colombian drug smugglers now use “semi-submersibles” to smuggle drugs into the United States; counterterrorism officials fear that what drug runners now use to deliver cocaine, terrorists could one day use to sneak personnel or massive weapons into the United States

Here is a new threat the United States is now facing: Skimming just below the surface, they are extremely difficult to detect from surveillance aircraft or patrol boats. Their sleek design, up to 80 feet in length, can secretly carry several tons of cargo thousands of miles. These “semi-submersibles,” which exhibit some of the same characteristics as military submarines, mark a significant advancement in the ability of drug smugglers to slip past coastal defenses. So far this year, the Coast Guard says it has encountered at least twenty-seven such vessels headed toward the southern and western United States, more than in the previous six years combined, while far more are believed to have gone undetected, according to U.S. military and law enforcement officials.

The Boston Globes’s Bryan Bender writes that the growing number and increased sophistication of the vessels, officially designated “self-propelled semi-submersibles,” has set off alarms at the highest levels of the U.S. military and DHS. Counterterrorism officials fear that what drug runners now use to deliver cocaine, terrorists could one day use to sneak personnel or massive weapons into the United States. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, the Miami-based military command that concentrates on Latin America, warned in a recent military journal article, “If drug cartels can ship up to 10 tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible, they can clearly ship or rent space to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction or a high-profile terrorist.”

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded the pod-like vessels are being constructed by outside specialists working in “expeditionary shipyards” — remote, makeshift facilities nestled along rivers or estuaries in the jungles of Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine — from which they are transported to the coast for the journey north. Built with high-tech composite materials and camouflaged to blend in with the ocean, they are estimated to cost up to several million dollars apiece. Although their interiors are quite Spartan — an engine, a rudimentary bridge with a set of controls, and crawl spaces — the submersibles are considered a generational leap beyond the more traditional means of large-scale intracoastal drug smuggling: fishing vessels, powerful “go-fast” racing boats, or commercial shipping containers. “This is a more sophisticated way of getting the dope into the country,” said John Pike, a weapons and technology specialist at GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., think tank. A semi-submersible, he said,