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Anti-Submarine Warfare In The Eastern Pacific
by James Dunnigan
October 6, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

So far this month, the U.S. Coast Guard has found and seized two drug smuggling semi-submersible boats carrying cocaine. One was 60 feet long and 360 kilometers off the coast of Guatemala. The other was 59 feet long and 650 kilometers off the coast of Guatemala. Each was carrying a four man crew and 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. 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.

Between 2000 and 2007, 23 of these boats were spotted. But so far this year, over 60 have been seen or captured. The two most recent captures were 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.

The submarine war off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America has been going on for eight years now. The cocaine producing gangs of Colombia have been having considerable success exporting their product via submarines. About a third of the 600 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast. Most of this is being carried in submarines, that move the cocaine north. Off the Pacific coast, it's believed that only about five percent of these subs have been caught.

These are not submarines in the true sense of the word, but "semi-submersibles". They are 30-60 foot fiberglass boats, powered by a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning tower", providing the crew (of 4-5), 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.

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. Russian naval architects and engineers have been discovered among those designing and building these boats. Based on interrogations of captured gang members, these subs cost over $600,000 to construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine.

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. So the average trip will take a few days. But going to Mexico takes about a week, with additional fuel and crew supplies reducing the amount of cocaine carried.

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.

But the increased patrols, and infiltration of drug gangs in Colombia, has led to a significant increase in captures of these boats. This has had 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.

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