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Narco-subs, cartels and law enforcement


Narco-subs, cartels and law enforcement

USCG board NarcoSub Aug2015 Credit US CoastGuard 1

Just last month, Colombian security forces discovered a 15-metre narco-sub in the jungle near the Pacific coast. A few weeks earlier, the U.S. Coast Guard published footage of a narco-sub intercepted off the Panamanian coast with 5.5 tonnes of cocaine on board, valued at $200 million. In March, an abandoned narco-sub was found stranded on a reef off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, its load of narcotics already unloaded by drug smugglers.

Narco-subs are purpose-built, semi-submersible drug smuggling vessels that operate illegally as ‘stateless vessels’. Most narco-subs are owned by Colombian drug cartels and operate as part of a transnational criminal network transporting cocaine from South to North America.

Before narco-subs, cartels primarily used light aircraft to smuggle their goods. However, this became increasingly risky as regional law enforcement agencies began to coordinate their efforts. Initially, this led to drug runners using ‘go-fast’ boats – powerboats with extra outboard engines – however, despite reaching impressive speeds, these were never fast enough to outrun coast guard helicopters. The answer lay in a slower, stealthier design carrying a much larger payload: the narco-sub.

The attraction of such vessels is straightforward economics. A typical narco-sub carries about six tonnes of cocaine, valued at roughly $180 million and equivalent to about 2,500 human drug mules. Therefore, the unit cost of a narco-sub and its crew are minimal.

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Although most narco-subs are built in the Colombian jungles along the Pacific coast, cartels have also set up illegal submarine factories in neighbouring countries including Ecuador, Brazil and Guyana. The illegal drug trade spreads corruption and violence throughout South America affecting Mexico in particular, where it is estimated up to 20,000 people are killed in drug or cartel-related crime every year.

In Colombia, there has for many years been a definite but ambiguous link with the FARC rebel movement who facilitate and benefit from the trade.

Facing off against narco-subs is a U.S.-led international coalition combining the navies coast guard and para-militaries of almost every Latin American nation. Since 2006 at least 50 narco-sub vessels have been destroyed or captured by authorities across the continent.

Despite the name, very few ‘narco-subs’ are true submarines. The vast majority are Low Profile Vessels (LPVs), so named because they present the lowest possible profile without actually submerging. The only things above the waterline are a pilot house, an air intake and the engine exhaust. A few are ‘semi-submersibles’, meaning they can control how deep they are running and can almost submerge, using a snorkel mast to provide air to their diesel engines.

Low profile vessels are much cheaper and simpler to construct than true semi-submersibles and submarines. They do not require a complicated ballasting system to adjust the running depth so more space and weight can be used to store narcotics. Unlike submersible craft, the crew or a narco-sub do not require any special training and stand a good chance of escaping if something goes wrong. On the flip side, low profile vessels are less stealthy than true semi-submersibles or submarines. However, it is estimated that only around a quarter of low profile vessel journeys are intercepted.


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Until now, narco-subs have been used exclusively for the transport of cocaine in and around Central America. Three potential future developments have been raised by policy planners and strategists:

– The potential for narco-subs to deliver narcotics directly to US shores, bypassing Mexican Cartels.
– The possibility of narco-subs being used to transport other illicit loads, particularly Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).
– The potential use of narco-subs in cross-Atlantic journeys, delivering payloads to Africa and Europe

In this author’s opinion there are two further developments to keep any eye on:

– The use of external cargo containers that can be released close to shore by a narco-sub, removing the need for the vessel to be met by local cartels. External storage pods have appeared on at least on narco-sub.
– Autonomous and remotely controlled narco-subs may be a real possibility. These types of vessels are already in use by Mexican drug cartels, albeit on a small scale such as the use of modified surfboards. A full-size version would allow much longer and slower journeys with less chance of discovery. Low profile vessels would be the most viable platform for this technology.

The standardisation and increased prevalence of narco-subs tells mean such technology is here to stay. Current investment by law enforcement to stop these craft has proved to be enough to encourage innovation by cartels, but not enough to deter them.
It is also reasonable to assume that the technology will continue to develop and spread to other criminal enterprises. Indeed, there seems a very real possibility that stateless craft based on narco-subs will become a worldwide problem, outflanking current law enforcement strategies.

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