Southern commandDrug smuggling becomes more sophisticated, I

Published 18 June 2009

Colombian drug kingpins still use old smuggling methods to bring drugs into the United States — aircraft, hidden in ship or aircraft cargo— but small submersibles can move the most cocaine at once, with the lowest risk; U.S. Navy, Coast Guard have detected more than 120 of these subs off the coast between Mexico and Colombia

These are not your father’s drug smugglers. The United States believes that Colombian cocaine smugglers have developed semi-submersible boats that are so successful at evading detection, that they are carrying most of the cocaine being moved north. DLS’s James Dunnigan writes that several years of effort by the U.S. Navy to improve detection methods have not had much success. This is a growing problem, because it is known that criminal gangs will sell their technology to other groups. If Islamic terrorists got their hands on these subs, they would have a useful way to move people and goods, as well as for making attacks.

Dunnigan writes that in the last three years, U.S., and other navy and coast guard ships off the coast between Mexico and Colombia, have detected more than 120 of these subs. Between 2000 and 2007, only 23 of these boats were spotted. Last year, nearly 70 were detected or captured. The numbers are up these year as well. Many of the captures are the result of intelligence information at the source, not air and naval patrols out there looking for them.

It is estimated that about 75 of these subs are being built in northwest Colombia each year, and sent on one way trips north.

Each of these boats carries a four-man crew and about seven tons of cocaine (worth nearly $200 million on the street). The loss of each boat and its cargo cost the Colombian drug cartels over $10 million in costs (of building the boat and producing the drugs). The crews are often Colombian fishermen forced to make the long voyage because their families were being held hostage. Running these boats is considered dangerous work, and the crews are paid well if they succeed, whether they volunteered for the work or not. Because of the risks (Dunnigan says that about 10 percent are believed lost at sea), the boats are nicknamed “coffins.” The crews are told to pull the plug (literally) and sink the boat (and its cargo) if spotted and about to be boarded.

Even with the boarding party on the way, jumping off a sinking boat, usually at night, is dangerous. Laws have been changed so that the crews escaping from their sinking boats can still be charged with drug smuggling (despite the loss of the evidence). The drug gangs are looking into automating the boats, so that no crew is needed at all.

These semi-submersibles have been operating off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America for at least nine years. More than a third of the of the 800 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast subs which move the drugs north. Despite increased efforts, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of these subs have been caught. The drug gangs still use other smuggling methods (aircraft, hidden in ship or aircraft cargo), but apparently the subs can move the most cocaine at once, with the lowest risk.

Tomorrow: How these submersibles are made