In November, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Thetis intercepted two semi-submersibles in the Eastern Pacific, a favorite haunt of so-called narco-subs. They were carrying cocaine northbound toward the United States. Each vessel was carrying just under two tons of the narcotic.
Narco Submarine captured by USCG on November 16 2019
The drug submarine captured by U.S. Coast Guard[+]
US COAST GUARD
Although only reported now, the events took place a few days before another drug submarine was found in Galicia, Spain, providing proof for the first time of a transatlantic drug submarine route. It is unlikely to be the first to actually venture across the Atlantic, however. The European vessel was not an unrelated phenomenon. Although it was discovered over 5,500 miles away, that semi-submersible had clear connections to some smuggling vessels found in the Pacific.
Even in international waters crewing an unregistered semi-submersible is illegal. This may actually increase the safety of the crews. Previously crews attempted to scuttle the boat because without the cocaine no crime could be proven. But now merely being on the low profile boat is illegal, so there is less incentive to abandon ship. Staying aboard and awaiting capture reduces the risk of drowning.
Virtually all of these ‘submarines’ are actually low-profile vessels (LPVs) designed to escape detection by riding low in the water. They do not fully submerge. Instead a few feet of fiberglass rises above the surface. This is enough to make them extremely difficult to see. Yet U.S. Coast Guard cutters, sometimes assisted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) aircraft or Navy assets, have been interdicting rising numbers in recent years.
Drug submarine incidents have increased for several reasons, but the underlying trend is that the traffic in these vessels is increasing. More are being built, and thus more are captured. And, the designs are getting smaller and simpler. The drug cartels are placing fewer eggs in each basket. This may also contribute to more incidents where they are reported washed up on beaches, often after having dropped off their payload.
The craft intercepted by Thetis are the 30th and 31st drug submarines reported this year. This brings 2019 close to the record 35 incidents reported last year. For comparison there were only 16 in 2017, and just 2 in 2013.
Narco Submarine incidents chart
Chart of reported drug submarine ('narco-sub')[+]
H I SUTTON
No matter how many are interdicted, the majority are thought to be getting through. I estimate that around 900 such vessels have been built over the years. These will have transported around a thousand tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, from where it goes overland into the United States. And smaller but not insignificant amounts will have crossed the Atlantic in similar vessels.
Despite the many seizures the trend looks set to continue into 2020.