February 26, 2009: The U.S. estimates that Colombian cocaine smugglers have developed semi-submersible boats that are so successful at evading detection, that they are carrying most of the cocaine being moved north. It's estimated that about 75 of these subs are being built in northwest Colombia each year, and sent on one way trips north. Each of these boats carries a four man crew and about 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, and the crews are paid well if they succeed, whether they volunteered for the work or not. Because of the risks (about ten percent are believed lost at sea), the boats are nicknamed "coffins." 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. Laws have been changed so that the crews escaping from their sinking boats, can still be charged with drug smuggling (despite the loss of the evidence).
Between 2000 and 2007, 23 of these boats were spotted. But last year, nearly 70 were seen or captured. Many of the captures are 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.
These semi-submersible "submarines" have been operating off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America for nine years. Over 75 percent of the 600 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast subs, carried in submarines, that move the cocaine north. Despite increased efforts, it's believed that less than ten percent of these subs have been caught.
These are not submarines in the true sense of the word, but "semi-submersibles". They are 60 foot long and 12 feet wide, fiberglass boats, powered by a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning tower", providing the crew (usually of four), 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. Moreover, a conventional sub actually spends most of its time running on the surface, or just beneath it using a snorkel device to obtain air for the diesel engine crew. So the drug subs get the most benefit of a real submarine (which cost about $300 million these days) at a fraction of the cost.
The 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. Early on, Russian naval architects and engineers were discovered among those designing and building these boats. But that did not last, as the Russian designs were too complex and expensive. Instead, local boat builders created and refined the current design. Some foreign experts have been seen in the area, apparently to help the boat builders with some technical problem. These subs cost over $600,000 to construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine. The boat builders are getting rich, constructing the boats in well hidden locations up one of the rivers that empties into the Pacific.
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. The average trip will take about two weeks, because the boats have learned to go very slowly during the day, to avoid leaving a wake that U.S. airborne sensors can detect.
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.
These subs 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. The technology has spread, with one of these boats found being built in Spain three years ago, by a local drug gang, to bring cocaine ashore from a seagoing ship far out at sea in international waters. GPS makes these kinds of operations possible.
Increased maritime patrols, and infiltration of drug gangs in Colombia, has led to a significant increase in captures of these boats. On land, Colombian soldiers and police are doing a lot of damage to cocaine production, and making boat production more difficult. All this is having 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 result.
But the stealthy boats are a concern to counter-terror officials. Bombs and terrorists can be transported in these vessels, and the technology for building them can be, and perhaps already has, spread. The technology is improving as well. Recently captured boats had a system installed that cooled the engine exhaust, making it more difficult for infrared (heat) sensors to sport it. Thus the U.S. Navy is putting a lot of effort into improving its sensors and search techniques, for finding these boats.