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.

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