Newer submarines are 'nearly-fully' submersible to be difficult to detect visually, by radar, sonar, or infrared systems. Cargos are typically several tons. In 2015, the largest-known cargo of 7.7 tonnes (17,000 lb) was seized on a semi-submersible.
During the 1980s, go-fast boats were the smuggling vessel of choice in many parts of the world, although these vessels could be detected by radar. As radar coverage improved, smugglers developed semi-submersibles to avoid radar detection.
In 1988, an unmanned 6.4 m (21 ft) submarine was found off Boca Raton, Florida. It was designed to be towed by a boat, and submerged by remote control. The sub was empty, but officials and authorities believe it was for smuggling after it was realized the hatch could be opened only from the outside.
In 2006, a submarine was seized 166 km (90 nmi; 103 mi) southwest of Costa Rica. The U.S. Coast Guard dubbed it Bigfoot because they heard rumors of their existence, but never saw any. In 2006, the U.S. detected three vessels in total, and their best estimate was twenty-five or maybe forty semi-subs departed from South America in 2007.
In 2008, authorities spotted ten per month, but only one out of ten was intercepted. In the first six months of 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy detected forty-two subs off the coasts of Central America, but few seizures resulted. According to various press-releases, an estimated eighty-five events could potentially bring about 544 tons of cocaine to U.S. customers by the end of 2008. In 2008, the Mexican Navy intercepted a 10 m (33 ft) submarine in international waters about 200 km (110 nmi; 120 mi) southwest of Oaxaca. Mexican Navy Special Forces rappelled from a helicopter on to its deck and arrested four smugglers. According to one press-release, the vessel carried 5.3 tons of cocaine; it was towed to Huatulco, Oaxaca, by a Mexican Navy patrol boat. Also in 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard captured a semi-submersible vessel in international waters about 563 km (304 nmi; 350 mi) west of Guatemala; it was carrying an even seven tons of cocaine. The 18 m (59 ft) steel/fiberglass vessel was detected by a U.S. Navy aircraft as part of Operation Panama Express, and was intercepted by Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 402 aboard USS McInerney. Five days later, an 18 m (59 ft) semi-submersible was seized in international waters by the U.S. Coast Guard Midgett about 322 km (174 nmi; 200 mi) south of Guatemala. Few other submarines were seized because their crews scuttled them upon interception.
In 2009, the U.S. detected "as many as sixty" submarine related events, and calculated they were moving as much as a ton of cocaine daily. In the same year, three submarines were seized on the shores of the Pacific coast, loaded with 1.5 tons of cocaine. The Colombian navy had intercepted or discovered thirty-three submarines by 2009.
After the November 5, 2010 arrest of Harold Mauricio Poveda, a key Mexican–Colombian link, 'exigent interrogation' methods revealed FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) were behind the construction of submarines, and were collaborating with the Sinaloa Cartel to fund their activities.
In 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard seized a semi-submersible in international waters about 300 miles west of Panama, carrying about 6 tons of cocaine with a street value of about $200 million to U.S. customers.
In 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard detained a semi-submersible off the coast of Texas carrying 1.7 tonnes (3,800 lb) of cocaine, and on 13 November the US Coast Guard located and seized another one off the coast of Panama.
In 2019, Spanish authorities apprehended a 20 m semi-submersible off Galicia, Spain containing 3,000 kg of cocaine, in the first known incident of a submarine crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Operation Black Tide: The Suicidal Journey, a book from author Javier Romero, is a detailed narrative of the enterprise. Amazon Prime Video has made Romero's book into both a television documentary account of the voyage and a drama serial, released in February and March 2022.
According to a press-release, on November 5, 2020, a submarine was seized in Colombia. A further interception was made in October 2021 by the Ecuadorian naval training ship the Guayas in the Pacific Ocean.
Colombia's Pacific coastline, where muddy rivers loop into the ocean, has long been used for smuggling and drug trafficking. The area is filled with thick jungles and waterways, which can be used as clandestine shipyards. A Colombian Navy Commander stated that it is most striking to notice the logistical capacity required of these criminals in order to take all the material into the heart of the jungle, including heavy equipment such as propulsion gear and generators. Sometimes they are put together in pieces and then reassembled in other locations under the jungle canopy, in camps outfitted with sleeping quarters for workers. The narco-submarines can cost about $2 million USD and take upward of a year to build. Despite the costs, some of the craft are intended for one-time use, being abandoned at sea after a successful delivery, given that their cargoes carry a street value of up to $400 million. On other seized craft however, officials found zinc bars used as sacrificial anodes, reducing corrosion on metal parts exposed to seawater. As corrosion would not be a concern on a single trip but is a factor influencing long-term durability, this is a clear indication that multiple use was intended. This, in turn, opens up the question of any illicit return cargo, like weapons, that they might carry back to Colombia.
The design and manufacturing techniques employed in their construction have improved over time: the boats have become faster, more seaworthy, and of higher capacity than earlier models. An 18 m (59 ft) long narco-submarine can reach speeds of 18 km/h (9.7 knots) and carry up to 10 tons of cocaine. They are typically made of fiberglass, powered by a 225–260 kW diesel engine and manned by a crew of four. They have enough cargo space to carry two to ten tons of cocaine, carry large fuel tanks which give them a range of 3,200 km (1,700 nautical miles), and are equipped with satellite navigation systems and long-range HF-SSB radio communications capabilities. There is no head (toilet), and accommodation is cramped.
Because much of its structure is fiberglass and it travels barely under the surface, the vessel is nearly impossible to detect via sonar or radar, and very difficult to spot visually. The newer models pipe their exhaust along the bottom of the hull to cool it before venting it, making the boat even less susceptible to infrared detection. They are most easily spotted visually from the air, though even that is difficult as they are camouflaged with blue paint and produce almost no wake. They have ballast tanks to alter the vessel's buoyancy so that they ride low in the water.
Narco-submarines were considered by officials to be an oddity until 2000, when Colombian police discovered what was reported to be a half-built 36 m-long true submarine in a warehouse outside Bogotá. The double-hulled steel vessel could have traveled 3,700 kilometers, dived 100 m, and could have carried about 15 tonnes of cocaine.
On 3 July 2010 the Ecuadorian authorities seized a fully functional, completely submersible diesel electric submarine in the jungles bordering Ecuador and Colombia. It had a cylindrical fiberglass and Kevlar hull 31 m (102 ft) long, a 3 m (9.8 ft) conning tower with periscope, and air conditioning. The vessel had the capacity for about 10 tonnes of cargo, a crew of five or six people, the ability to fully submerge down to 20 m (66 ft), and the capacity for long-range underwater operation. Ecuadorean authorities seized the vessel before its maiden voyage.
On 14 February 2011 another submarine was seized by the Colombian navy. The 31 m-long fiberglass and Kevlar vessel was found hidden in a jungle area in Timbiquí, in south-western Colombia. It was capable of travelling 9 m (30 ft) below water and it could carry four people and up to 8 tonnes of cargo.
In August 2005, authorities discovered an unmanned semi-submersible in the Pacific Ocean, a "torpedo-style cargo container" (instead of a full-featured self-propelled ship). These versions use a ballast tank (submersion control) to keep them at about 30 m (98 ft) under water while towed by a fishing vessel. If a patrol ship is spotted, the "torpedo" cargo container is released. While submerged, it automatically releases a buoy concealed as a wooden log so it would be mistaken for marine debris. This log-buoy is equipped with a location transmitter system so coworkers can retrieve the torpedo after the vessel and her crew are released by authorities. If the original vessel was detained or otherwise unable to retrieve the cargo torpedo, the location transmission system also allowed for a second support fishing vessel to retrieve it and then continue the delivery. Such a log-buoy was designed to be used as a last resort; risks are involved with the deployment of said buoy:
The buoy contains a mechanism to temporarily raise then lower its antenna to transmit its coordinates in encrypted form at irregular intervals. Encrypted codes are used in case of signal interception. Such an encryption could, at a minimum, delay authorities in their attempt to reach the cargo, allowing the narco-traffickers to reach it first. This system evolved from existing buoys used on fishing nets. The buoy designers claim a near 100% shipment delivery success, and state the "torpedo" development is evolving into remote-control using encrypted signals transmitted via satellite.
Similar to most coastlines, the western Colombian shore is ideal for smuggling. About a third of the two tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each day leaves via the Pacific coast in semi-submersibles. Homeland Security estimate submarines carry one-third of smuggled maritime goods to United States customers, while claiming they "are clueless" about the rest.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Coast Guard say smugglers are evolving complete logistics:
For smugglers, the trips are worth the investment—a nine-ton load earns nearly US$200 million wholesale from U.S. customers. Professional fishermen are often at the controls, and earn about US$3,000 after completing the excursion.
Submarine smugglers unload their cargo onto fast-boats for the final leg to shore. According to press-releases, none of the submarines are known to unload at North American ports or beaches.
In March 2006, according to a press-release, the Calabrian Mafia ('Ndrangheta) ordered a shipment of nine tons of cocaine to be transported by a narco-submarine from Colombia to Italy, but according to a countering press-release, the vessel was discovered[by whom?] during construction.
In 2007, thirteen of the vessels were seized on Colombian dry land or stopped at sea by Colombian or U.S. patrol boats, more than in the previous fourteen years combined, but arrests are rare. After clandestine shipyards are discovered, workmen escape into the jungle. In some instances, semi-subs are towed behind fishing vessels, and are scuttled if detected.
In 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard adjusted their underwater acoustic sensors to listen for submarines. According to a 2019 press-release, the U.S. Coast Guard reports they capture 11% of submarines.
If various militaries attempt to seize the semi-submersibles in international waters, the crews usually scuttle them. Until 2008, in accordance with international maritime law, the crew was rescued, and, if there was no evidence of wrongdoing, released. To address this loophole, the US Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act in September 2008 made it a "felony for those who knowingly or intentionally operate or embark in a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) without nationality and that is or ever navigated international waters, with the intent to evade detection". The penalty is a prison term of up to twenty years in the U.S.
The U.S. law does not apply to flagged vessels (i.e., registered with some officially-recognized government). The bill grants extraterritorial jurisdiction over international waters, and makes it illegal to lack relevant documents. Instead of an anti-narcotics operation turning into a rescue mission after submarines are sunk, the crew can be detained and interrogated using 'exigent methods'.
In 2009, Colombia's Congress passed a law punishing builders of semi-submersible vessels with up to 12 years in prison, or 14 years if they are used to transport drugs.
Government security issues related to "torpedo-style cargo containers", semi-submersible vessels, and submarines were reviewed in an August 2012 article in Homeland Security Affairs.
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