Drug Subs 2.0

This submarine, seized by Ecuadorean soldiers near the Colombian border is believed to be capable of long-range underwater voyages to transport narcotics to the United States. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency)

This submarine, seized by Ecuadorean soldiers near the Colombian border, is believed to be capable of long-range underwater voyages to transport narcotics to the United States. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) Click the image to view more photos of the sub.

For decades now, narcoterrorists have spent literally millions of dollars trying to find new ways to evade detection and infiltrate American waters with illegal drugs. The low-flying sea planes and go-fast boats of the 80s and 90s gave way to the first semi-submersible drug subs only a few short years ago. And, if the recent seizure of a fully submersible drug sub along Ecuador’s border with Columbia is any indication, the drug cartels are at it again.

Crew from CGC Jarvis detain personnel aboard a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) captured in the Eastern Pacific off the coast of Central America, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009. (U.S. Coast Guard photo) Click the image to read more about the bust.

“The submarine is both a game-changer and a logical progression in the efforts of the drug runners,” said RDML Joseph “Pepe” Castillo, the U.S. Coast Guard Eleventh District Commander – whose units have been involved in some of the biggest drug busts in history. “It’s a game changer because it requires us to refine our detection and interdiction tactics to combat this new threat.”

“It is also, however, a logical progression and not totally unexpected,” said Castillo. “The cooperative efforts of the interagency drug interdiction team here in the U.S. working alongside our international partners has forced the narcoterrorists to adopt a different strategy. I would expect to see changes like this given our success.”

In 2009 alone, the Coast Guard, working with other federal law enforcement agencies like DEA and CBP, seized 11 drug subs (of the semi-submersible variety) and interdicted more than 64 metric tons of cocaine in the process. That success was the subject of a Coast Guard Compass blog post and National Geographic Channel special back in January.

An Ecuadorean soldier inspects the interior of a suspected drug submarine captured earlier this month near the Colombian border. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency)

An Ecuadorean soldier inspects the interior of a suspected drug submarine captured earlier this month near the Colombian border. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency)

Castillo also credits Congressional passage of the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act in fall 2008, which significantly improved our ability to prosecute those cases, as an equally significant game changer on the side of drug interdiction.

Recent success in interdicting SPSS subs has been due in no small part to improvements in our detection capabilities according to Castillo. U.S. authorities (including the Coast Guard) worked with the Guatemalan navy to capture a SPSS drug sub with nearly 5 tonnes of cocaine as recently as this past weekend.

So, how will knowledge obtained from the first seizure of a fully operational drug submarine impact our ability to combat drug trafficking?

“The more we learn about this technology, the more prepared we are to safely interdict a narco-submarine when we encounter them at sea,” said Castillo.


  • Winston BeLisle

    I saw this article off of a Facebook comment by the US Coast Guard.. I’m just wondering where they get those Subs? Are they derelicts from the US Navy? Some foreign Government or what? If they can ‘recycle them’ to use to carry drugs, then why don’t we use them as defensive weapons against them instead of getting rid of them, if the subs are ours?? Just use what we have in our arsenal and reuse them in our other divisions of the Government.

  • Christopher Lagan

    The drug subs are not surplus from the U.S. or any other navy (to the best of my knowledge based on available information). They are, for lack of a better term, ‘homemade’ – sometimes made from wood and/or fiberglass by the drug runners themselves. To date, the drug subs we have interdicted have been semi-submersible or vessels that operate low in the water but not capable of fully submerging themselves underwater. The significance of the sub seized by the Ecuadoreans is the fact that this particular sub appears to be the first that is capable of operating fully submerged under the surface of the water. As RDML Castillo points out in the post, this discovery represents a new challenge to drug interdiction operations but one he is confident the Coast Guard and its partners will overcome.

    Respectfully,
    Christopher Lagan
    United States Coast Guard
    Public Affairs

  • WIlliam Bennett

    I was recently watching a documentary about the soviet mafia in New York on the National Geographic channel and they specifically mentioned that the Soviet Union had sold some of their diesel powered subs to South American drug lords. So they could be out there somewhere in use or they could be too expensive, and too dangerous, to train a crew for smuggling drugs. In my opinion it is cheaper to make these homemade subs and use them. Still a very good article, but seems short to me, I could use some more information.

    Respectfully,
    William Bennett
    United States Coast Guard

  • Ray Lafferty

    We might speculate the drug-subs are former soviet navy subs, but where is the proof? It is known the Russians have sold old “clunker” subs to North Korea and other nations, even when their armed forces and national policies are hostile to America and a threat to world peace. The possession of former soviet subs in the North Korean (PRNK)navy evidence the lack of responsibility of the seller power to a purchasing power. We must prepare our ASW capabilities to meet the PRNK threat, and recognize we shall probably suffer casualties in any conflict with the PRNK navy. The PRNK also deals in the international illicit drug trade.

  • Ollie Garth

    The leakage of Soviet Technology to drug cartels is nothing new. Just a few years back there were some Ukranian nuclear engineers working at a silo who had not received their paychecks in months. US Intel became aware of the risk, visited them and offered to pay them twice as much. When they went to pay them they’d vanished. About a year later tunnels were found to be expert built in Colombia with russian versions of autocad and configuration control for a drug cartel.

    Take a guess who offered more money and was more prompt about re-employment? Why does this give me an eerie feeling in my gut?

  • Dan H

    Honestly most of the semi-submersible drug subs that I have seen are just converted sailing vessels. They just chop the deck off, take fiberglass and make it completely flat. Rig up a snorkel and augment the ballast system to allow the ship to ride lower in the water. Thats a lot cheaper than buying a russian sub. Also it allows for any un-educated thug to drive one. If you have a soviet sub you will need the personnel to man and operate it. Thats alot of eggs in one basket.

  • Federico Narrero

    The posibility of building a sub from the start have been prooven in the US many times now by private people doing it as hobbies at their houses. We all know that it is difficult to limit resources to drug cartels and further more have a good intel on their activities. Many of the people who in this part of the world studies aeronautical or vessel engeniering came to the US as a low key civilian studies paid by the cartels or any other group to learn and pay back to them with their work. The only thing they need to build a fleet of these vessels are 1)money, which they have 2) one model to perform reverse engeniering 3) a place to do it ( well vegetated jungle) 4) and labor force of poor people. For the personnel to man and operate the sub, in the documentary of National Geo they paid the sub and they paid the soviet crew which worked from the start with the vessel. remeber that was the just after cold war there was barely enough money to pay for the MIGS fuel and they started giving joy rides for 8,000 a piece.So Built or Bought,I thik we will have our hands full for many years. We can only hope they dont learn to arm them and learn to use low emmisory radar technologies.