21, 2008: So far this month, the U.S.
Coast Guard has found and seized two drug smuggling semi-submersible boats
carrying cocaine. One was 60 feet long and 360 kilometers off the coast of
Guatemala. The other was 59 feet long and 650 kilometers off the coast of
Guatemala. Each was carrying a four man crew and 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 very dangerous work. The crews are told the 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,
often at night, is dangerous.
and 2007, 23 of these boats were spotted. But so far this year, over 60 have
been seen or captured. The two most recent captures were the result of
intelligence information at the source, not air and naval patrols out there
just looking for them. These boats are hard to spot (by aircraft or ships),
which is why they are being used more often.
submarine war off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America has been going
on for eight years now. The cocaine producing gangs of Colombia have been
having considerable success exporting their product via submarines. About a
third of the 600 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via
the Pacific coast. Most of this is being carried in submarines, that move the
cocaine north. Off the Pacific coast, it's believed that only about five
percent of these subs have been caught.
not submarines in the true sense of the word, but
"semi-submersibles". They are 30-60 foot fiberglass boats, powered by
a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning
tower", providing the crew (of 4-5), and engine, with fresh air, and permitting
the crew to navigate the boat. A boat of this type is the only practical kind
of submarine for drug smuggling. A real submarine, capable of carrying five
tons of cocaine, would cost a lot more, and require a highly trained crew.
semi-submersibles are built, often using specially made components brought in
from foreign countries, in areas along the Colombian coast, or other drug gang
controlled territory. Russian naval architects and engineers have been
discovered among those designing and building these boats. Based on
interrogations of captured gang members, these subs cost over $600,000 to
construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine.
At one point
it was thought that as many as half of them were captured or lost at sea. But
this is apparently not the case. That's because most of these subs are built
for a one way trip. This keeps down the cost of construction, and the cost of
hiring a crew (who fly home). That one voyage will usually be for about a
thousand kilometers, with the boat moving at a speed of 15-25 kilometers an
hour. So the average trip will take a few days. But going to Mexico takes about
a week, with additional fuel and crew supplies reducing the amount of cocaine
In the past,
some subs making long range trips were caught while being towed by a larger
ship. Apparently the plan was to tow a semi-submersible, loaded with a ten ton
cocaine cargo, long distances, and then be cut it loose for the final approach
to the shore of California or some area in Europe or on the east coast of North
America. While the subs are most frequently used from the Pacific coast of
Colombia, they are showing up elsewhere as well.
are not stealthy enough to avoid detection all the time, and the U.S. is
working to tweak search radars, and other types of sensors, to more reliably
detect the drug subs. For the moment, it appears that these semi-submersibles
do work, because the drug gangs keep using them more and more. Delivery by sea
is now the favored method for cocaine smugglers, because the United States has
deployed military grade aircraft detection systems, and caught too many of the
airborne drug shipments. The smugglers did their math, and realized that
improvised submarines were a more cost-effective way to go.
increased patrols, and infiltration of drug gangs in Colombia, has led to a
significant increase in captures of these boats. This has had an impact, with
cocaine prices going up, and quality going down. Drug testing and surveys
indicates that cocaine use in the United States has declined 10-20 percent as a