Going Deep and Getting High: Are Narcosubs Winning the War on Drugs?

Since the 1990s, South American drug cartels have been building their own underwater vessels.

Civilian submersible vessels have made headlines lately, with a Danish inventor killing and dismembering Swedish journalist Kim Hall on board his self-built submarine.

But since the 1990s, South American drug cartels have been building their own underwater vessels, generating concern in the United States and also among their drug enforcement allies, south of their border in Mexico.

Drug dealers have always taken advantage of marine and aircraft resources to stealthily navigate through official checkpoints and blockades, but with increased radar technology, satellite mapping of clandestine airstrips, and ground penetrating radars, the pressure's on for cartels to abandon tunnels, planes and surface watercraft as their preferred means of outsmarting authorities.

Narco is short for narcotraficante, a general term referring to organised drug cartels and traffickers capitalising on North American demand for illicit drugs. And narco subs are their new weapon against detection.

 

Narco Subs and Semi-Submersibles

Commonly referred to as "narco subs," these "home-built" submarines are, in the opinions of US Coast Guard personnel, relatively advanced.

Usually made from fibreglass and marine-grade plywood, and appointed with crude ventilation and steering systems, submersibles use global positioning satellite technology (GPS) and night-vision-equipped periscopes to take advantage of the cover of night. Some narco craft are even equipped with thick insulation or lead panels on their decks to defeat infrared imaging systems.

The US captured its first fully-submersible narco vessel in 2011. The 30-meter submarine had a payload of eight tonnes, room for a crew of six, and fuel storage capable of powering a weeklong journey.

Narco submarine technology has only improved since then.

Semi-submersibles, also called low-profile vessels (LPVs) have the advantage of natural airflow over their fully-submersible counterparts. Ventilation, condensation and high temperatures make fully submersible narco craft uncomfortable for crew and potentially damaging to cargo.

Semi-subs, the "prototypes" of narco submersibles, are like icebergs in that only a tiny portion of the vessel, usually, a small dome for visual navigation and a few ventilation and exhaust pipes, remain above the waterline. Just below the surface, enormous enclosed hulls painted in aqueous hues, glide through the water with signatures largely undetected by patrolling ships, aircraft, and radar.

Anti-trafficking agencies categorise narco subs as either self-propelled (self-explanatory) or towable; the latter are often pulled along as underwater "barges". When Coast Guard inspectors board the motorised vessels, tow-lines are either cut or otherwise hidden from detection. If officials fail to discover the towables, and have no evidence to seize the motorised "tug", traffickers can often retrieve their concealed cargo and go on their way...or literally "cut their losses".

 

Ranging Far, Wide, and Deep

The majority of narco submarines and LPVs are built under the cover of jungle canopies in coastal Colombia mangrove swamps, and according to recent maps of suspected 2016 trafficking routes, they're launched from Ecuador, Guyana, Venezuela, and every Central American country in between, usually headed for Mexico and Guatemala for ground transport across the US/Mexico border.

Built with the capability to hold enough fuel for ranges of hundreds if not thousands of nautical miles, narco subs and semi-subs typically chug along at about 11 kilometers per hour far out to sea to outfox coastal patrols, before heading to shore on near-perpendicular trajectories. Some submarines are capable of diving at least 10 meters to avoid detection

“Transporting cocaine from the Colombian jungle to drop-off points in Central America and Mexico takes about two weeks aboard the semi-subs” —TIME magazine

Imagine that for a moment. Two (or more!) weeks inside a small, stinky, sweaty, space. Most likely, with a narco soldier pointing an AK-47 at your head in case you get any funny ideas about pulling a very, very expensive remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.

(Isn't it unwise to discharge a firearm from inside a fibreglass hull? For that matter...isn't it unwise to dive to considerable depths in a home-made submarine?)

Inexpensive to build, at least with respect to the value of their cargo, crews often "scuttle" their craft upon completing their runs; even a single trip justifies the cost of replacing them for the sake of convenience and security.

 

Narco Subs: Sleek, Surreptitious, and Successful

Collecting data on the role of narco subs in drug trafficking is difficult. With so much area to cover and limited resources, the US Coast Guard and their counterparts in Mexico, Central America and South America know that they're intercepting only a small percentage of narco watercraft. Much of their data is learned from interrogating captive crews, who are usually not too keen on the consequences of spilling the beans. And nobody likes a snitch.

  • According to a report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, The US Coast Guard intercepts about a quarter of cocaine shipments destined for the States, with about 69% of it stopped in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
  • Roughly 80% of drugs entering the US cross the ocean, and 30% of that spend part of the journey aboard narco subs.
  • In 2009, LPVs transported an estimated 70% of the cocaine leaving Colombia's Pacific coast.
  • In 2016, the US Coast Guard set the US record for "the most drugs ever seized" after stopping more than 443,790 pounds of cocaine—valued at more than USD $5.9 billion —from reaching the United States.
  • In mid December of 2017, the 270-foot Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba completed a two month patrol of Eastern Pacific trafficking routes, during which it nabbed four narco surface vessels and one self-propelled LPV. In fewer than 64 days, the Escanaba seized 6.7 tonnes of cocaine worth an estimated wholesale value of USD $202 million.

Holy frijoles, Batman. That's a LOT of blow!

 

The Possibilities are Endless (and Scary as Hell) with Narco Sub Tech

It's one thing to battle seafaring militant drug cartels, but concerns about the use of do-it-yourself submersible technology, as basic as it is, has government bigwigs on nearly every continent peeing their pants.

“Though it hasn't been reported that al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have ever tried to rent space on a narco sub or build one themselves in an effort to move drugs, weapons, or terrorists, it's not much of a stretch to imagine this development, especially considering the latter's alleged links to drug traffickers in parts of Latin America.” — Avi Jorisch, The Daily Beast

When costs and morals are no deterrent, modern materials such as carbon-fibre and Kevlar, emerging energy-storage technology, and a little creativity and fundamentalism mean confidence in national security could take a nosedive.

Keep reading. Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.

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