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Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible (SPSS) watercraft

The amount of cocaine moving through the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone (WHTZ) in calendar year 2007 increased from 1,022 metric tons in CY 2006 to 1,421 metric tons in CY 2007. Removals of cocaine loads in transit by interdiction forces increased from 256 metric tons to an all-time record high of 316 metric tons. Despite this notable increase, the removal rate, i.e., removals as a percentage of total movement, remains in the low twenty percent range. This is well below the national target of 40 percent, suggesting that there remains much room for continued improvement. Sixty-eight percent of the cocaine moving through the transit zone transited the Eastern Pacific in 2007; twenty-one percent passed through the Western Caribbean; ten percent was smuggled through the Central Caribbean and less than one percent was shipped directly to the United States.

Most drugs departing Colombia go by sea -- either "go-fast" boats, fishing vessels, commercial shipping, or the relatively new method of Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible watercraft (SPSS). Typically, in the eastern Pacific, fishing vessels carrying multi-ton loads of cocaine depart Colombian and Ecuadorian Pacific coast ports for delivery points along the Central American or Mexican coast. In the Caribbean, high-speed "go-fast" vessels, hauling as much as two metric tons of cocaine at a time, leave Colombia 's north coast for delivery points in the eastern Caribbean, or hug the Central American coastline in their track north to points along the Central American and Mexican coastlines. A fishing vessel operation can last up to six weeks, while go-fast operations run normally one or two days. The number of go-fast boats involved in smuggling has increased substantially in the past few years. Such craft are small, very fast, nearly invisible to radar, and difficult to see in daylight. To counter the go-fast threat, the Coast Guard has acquired new equipment and developed capabilities to use armed helicopters, over-the-horizon cutter boats, and non-lethal vessel-stopping technologies.

The seizure in 2000 of a partially constructed, 100-foot submarine outside the city of Bogota reflected the versatility and financial resources of Colombian drug traffickers. Had it been completed, this submarine would have been capable of transporting up to ten metric tons of cocaine to the United States, about five percent of annual US demand, while remaining at snorkel depth the entire trip. With an estimated total cost of 20 million dollars, this demonstrated trafficker resources and ingenuity. Colombian cocaine trafficking groups generate billions of dollars in revenues each year, resources that increasingly have been used to purchase the best talent and technology available on the world market. While smaller semi-submersible vessels had been seized in the past, as of 2000 drug law enforcement officials did not believe that "drug submarines" are likely to become a significant threat or a common mode used to transport drugs.

But tn recent years, drug trafficking organizations started using Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible watercraft (SPSSs) to transport large amounts of cocaine from Colombia to Central America, Mexico, and ultimately the United States. SPSSs are similar to submarines in that they can operate with a significant portion of their hull below the waterline, which makes them hard to detect. A submersible vessel is a vessel that is capable of operating below the surface of the water, and includes manned and unmanned watercraft. A semi-submersible vessel is any watercraft constructed or adapted to be capable of putting much of its bulk under the surface of the water. SPSS vessels are made of fiberglass, typically are less than 100 feet in length, and can carry up to five passengers and over 13 tons. They travel at speeds of up to 12 knots (14 miles per hour); they can travel from the north coast of South America to the southeastern U.S. without refueling.

SPSS vessels represent an increasingly significant threat to safety and security. Carefully ballasted and well camouflaged, they ride so low in the water that they are nearly impossible to detect visually or by radar at any range greater than 3,000 yards. The vessels, which look like a cross between a submarine and a cigarette boat, can be both manned and operated remotely, and can transport multi-ton loads of cocaine and other illicit cargo to the US. The production quality and operational capabilities of these vessels steadily improved, allowing traffickers to move more product with greater stealth. The distances these vessels can travel without support are allowing traffickers greater flexibility when planning potential drop locations.

US Coast Guard, Navy and Customs and Border Protection crews interdicted and boarded a self-propelled, semi-submersible vessel loaded with an estimated $352 million of cocaine on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007. The vessel was spotted by a US Customs and Border patrol aircraft on routine patrol in the area. A joint U.S. Navy-US Coast Guard crew from the USS DeWert rescued four suspected drug smugglers and retrieved 11 bales of cocaine that bobbed to the surface.

After just 23 total SPSS events between 2000 and 2007, drug trafficking organizations conducted at least 45 SPSS transits during the first six months of FY 2008. SPSS account for 32% of all maritime cocaine flow in the transit zone. In 2007 a "ship building" site was discovered in the Colombian jungle where five semi-submersibles were under construction - each with a capacity to bring several tons of cocaine into the United States. The Coast Guard seized more than 350,000 pounds of cocaine at sea in 2007, worth an estimated street value of more than 4.7 billion dollars.

The Coast Guard estimates that SPSS encounters had skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2001 and 2007, 23 identified SPSS drug smuggling events occurred. But between just October 1, 2007 and February 1, 2008, a reported 27 SPSS events resulted in an estimated 111 tons of cocaine being delivered. The Coast Guard predicts 85 SPSS events in fiscal year 2008 will carry 340 tons of cocaine.

Success against this emerging threat required a multi-faceted approach, including: international cooperation and coordination; a persistent patrol presence in the transit zone; active intelligence gathering and sharing; and effective legislation to facilitate prosecution. The Mexican Navy's interdiction notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of SPSS interdictions result in the successful scuttling of the vessel with its entombed cargo of cocaine. When the vessel operators realize they have been spotted by law enforcement, they can open a valve and scuttle the SPSSs by quickly flooding the watercraft. As a result, the SPSSs and any drugs on board quickly sink to an unrecoverable depth. The 3 to 4 man crew then jumps overboard. Since no narcotics are recovered, they avoid prosecution and law enforcement can only rescue them and return them to land. Absent contraband evidence, there were few practical options under U.S. law to pursue prosecution. The U.S. and its partners have the ability to aggressively pursue and interdict SPSS vessels, but it was the legislative piece that was missing.

The Bush Administration strongly supported legislation to make the operation of or embarkation in a stateless self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) vessel on international voyages a felony. In June 2008, legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate that would enable U.S. prosecutions of SPSS smugglers and crew members even if they successfully scuttle the vessel and all drug evidence is destroyed. Similar legislation was included in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2008. Each of these measures enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

H.R. 6295 prohibits the intentional operation of a submersible or semi-submersible water vessel that is without identifiable nationality and is navigating into, through, or from waters in an adjacent country's territorial seas. According to the bill, a vessel's identity can be claimed with documents carried on board the vessel, verbal identification, or by flying a country's flag or ensign. The bill makes such an act, or conspiring to commit such an act, punishable by no more than 20 years of imprisonment. This legislation was introduced by Representative Daniel Lungren (R-CA) on June 18, 2008. The bill was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, but was never considered. H.R. 6295 was passed on the floor of the House on July 29, 2008.

On July 29, 2008 U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, introduced the Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 (S.3351), legislation designed to help disrupt drug trafficking by criminalizing the use of unregistered, un-flagged submersible or semi-submersible vessels in international waters whose operators intend to evade detection. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joined Sen. Biden in introducing this bill, which would give authorities a new tool to go after the drug lords who have been using this technology to avoid prosecution.

"Drug lords are finding new ways to traffic drugs every day - and we have to keep a step ahead of them. We've learned that drug dealers are using submarine-like watercraft to traffic drugs under water - more easily evading detection and delivering drugs up to 3,500 miles away," said Sen. Biden, a leader in tackling emerging drug threats. "If drug smugglers can pack tons of illegal drugs into these stealthy vessels, it's pretty clear that terrorists could carry weapons of mass destruction or other threats into our country this way. This bill will help shut down this new mode of trafficking."

The US Coast Guard, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Office of National Drug Control Policy strongly support criminalizing this conduct. The Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 built on the work of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Sen. Biden pledged to continue to work with Sen. Lautenberg to get these measures enacted. Sen. Biden's bill specifically:

  • Makes it a felony for those who knowingly or intentionally operate or embark in an SPSS that is without nationality and that is or has navigated in international waters, with the intent to evade detection;
  • Protects researchers, explorers, or others who may legitimately be operating an SPSS for a lawful purpose by adding a robust affirmative defense for such conduct; and
  • Directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to establish sentencing guidelines to provide for appropriate penalties for persons convicted of this offense, including taking into account aggravating and mitigating factors associated with the offense.

These Biden provisions were added to the House version of this bill (H.R. 6295), which passed the House of Representatives on July 29, 2008.

Semi-submersible, low-profile vessels transport drugs for profit, and they do so effectively. It does not take a great leap to imagine what danger awaits us if drug traffickers choose to link trafficking routes and methods with another -- perhaps even more profitable -- payload. In simple terms, if drug cartels can ship up to ten tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible, they can clearly ship or "rent space" to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction or a high-profile terrorist.



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