June 26, 2009: Colombia has outlawed the construction, and use, of the semi-submersible boats used to smuggle much of the cocaine coming into North America. For those caught building these boats, it's twelve years in prison. For those caught using these boats, it's fourteen years. 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. Several years of effort by the U.S. Navy to improve detection methods, have not had much success.
In the last three years, U.S., and other navy and coast guard ships off the coast between Mexico and Colombia, have detected over 120 of these subs. Between 2000 and 2007, only 23 of these boats were spotted. But last year, nearly 70 were detected or captured. The numbers are up these year as well, with 37 caught so far this year, with six caught so far this month. 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.
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). Running these boats is not as dangerous as they used to be, but the crews are still paid well if they succeed, often over $100,000 each. Because of the risks with the early designs (about ten percent were believed lost at sea), the boats were nicknamed "coffins." The crews are told to 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, usually at night, is dangerous. U.S. 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). This, plus the new Colombian laws, is why the drug gangs are looking into automating the boats, so that no crew is needed at all.
These semi-submersible "submarines" have been operating off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America for at least nine years. More than a third of the of the 800 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast subs, that move the drugs north. Despite increased efforts, it's believed that less than ten percent of these subs have been caught. The drug gangs still use other smuggling methods (aircraft, hidden in ship or aircraft cargo), but apparently the subs can move the most cocaine at once, with the lowest risk.
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 enabling the crew to navigate. 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 anyway, 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 nearby. 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 $700,000 to construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine. The boat builders are getting rich, constructing the boats in well hidden locations up the rivers that empty into the Pacific. Colombian security forces are bringing more troops into this coastal areas, and in one recent week, found five of these subs (completed or under construction.) Troops and police are also going after the materials (fiberglass) needed to build the boats, and the suppliers who are getting the building materials for the gangs. This could force the gangs down the coast, to Ecuador, but the coast there, and local conditions, are not as conducive to sub building. So the gangs are fighting hard to keep the army away from the dozens of hidden submarine building "yards" along the Colombian coast.
The one trip these craft undertake, 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. The technology has already spread. One of these boats was discovered under construction in Spain four 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.
These subs are not stealthy enough to avoid detection all the time, and the U.S. has been trying to tweak search radars, and heat sensors, to more reliably detect the drug subs. 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 to terrorist groups. 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 spot it. Thus the U.S. Navy is putting a lot of effort into improving its sensors and search techniques, for finding these boats.