Narco-Submarines - Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible (SPSS) watercraft
Small surface vessels, self-propelled semi-submersibles, and now the most recent innovation of fully submerged vessels (FSVs), pose significant challenges to maritime security. A semisubmersible vessel is a watercraft constructed or adapted to be capable of operating with most of its hull and bulk under the surface of the water, including both manned and unmanned watercraft, while a “submersible vessel” is a vessel that is capable of operating completely below the surface of the water, including both manned and unmanned watercraft.
These submersibles typically deliver drugs to other vessels at sea and then are scuttled after off-loading. Ultimately, the cargo is shipped via land routes into the United States. Indeed, in other applications, this method can potentially facilitate the covert delivery of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), terrorists, illegal aliens, and any other item or criminal small enough to fit in the vessel. One U.S. Coast Guard official has estimated that up to three SPSSs carry drugs along the Pacific coast each week.
The manufacture and distribution of illegal narcotics are an incredibly lucrative trade, one that incentivizes cartels to go to great lengths and expense to innovate new methods to avoid detection. There are more and more accounts of the Coast Guard interdicting so-called narco-submarines- semi-submersible, and even fully-submersible, ships, built in the depths of the jungles of Colombia and Ecuador to move massive amounts of drugs while remaining nearly undetectable.
Joaquin ``El Chapo'' Guzman was among the first to make use of these submarines, and hired naval architects to devise a means for constructing these relatively sophisticated vessels in primitive conditions under the deep jungle canopy. Narco-submarines are highly vital assets in the narcotic trafficking trade because they carry immense payloads and are difficult to detect. The U.S. Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) report on “Narco-Submarines” reveals that nearly 80 percent of narcotics smuggled into the United States are transported via maritime lines. Of that 80 percent, 30 percent were transported via narco-subs. The US Coast Guard estimates that only a quarter of these submarines are interdicted.
These subs are custom made, self-propelled vessels built by drug traffickers to smuggle their goods. Over the years, their engineering, design and technology have improved, thus making them more difficult to detect and capture. These vessels typically come in three different variants and can carry upwards to seven metric tons of cocaine per run: Low profile Vessels (LPV)/Self Propelled Semi-Submersibles, Submersibles/ Submersible Vessels (FSV), and Narco-Torpedoes (which are towed vessels).
The first low profile vessels (LPVs) boats resembled sealed ‘go-fast’ boats which simply rode lower in the water. The usual arrangement of these vessels had a cabin at the rear and cargo hold amidships. However, over time the LPV’s configuration has been modified resulting in a specialized hull form with generally pointed bow and stern, with small cabin amidships, an engine compartment located in the rear of the vessel, and narcotics cargo placed in every available space. These LPVs were designed to run awash to minimize radar cross-section. They are often incorrectly described as “semi-submersible”. They represent the vast majority of seized drug smuggling vessels to date.
In the early 1990s, South American drug cartels came up with a new tactic to transport narcotics destined for the United States: small, radar-dodging, self-propelled, semi-submersibles (SPSSs). Although clandestine semi-submersibles were rumored to exist in the mid-1990s, many believed them to be a myth, hence their name Bigfoots. Then in 2006, an actual Colombian semi-submersible was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Today, drug cartels continue to build their “narco subs.” With low profiles and low radar reflectivity, these illegal, stealthy, drug-running semi-submersibles cut through the water at wave height and are nearly impossible to detect.
Dozens of these boats have been captured by the U.S. and partner nation law enforcement agencies in the last few years, sometimes with their cargo still on board, sometimes after it has been thrown overboard. When the crews become aware they’ve been spotted, they will typically scuttle the boat immediately, knowing they’ll be rescued by us anyway.
Meanwhile, cramped living conditions within the illegal SSPSs can be horrendous. There is generally only 3” of space above the waterline, meaning the ride can be very rough. The small crews of 3 or 4 have little to eat, poor air quality, no toilet facilities, operate with little rest until they reach their destination, and are sometimes watched over by an armed guard. If the mission is undetected and the drugs successfully delivered, the vessel is typically scuttled and not reused. Drug-running is lucrative. It is cheaper to simply build another vessel than to run the risk of trying to get a vessel and its crew home.
Various agencies in the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities have statistics and estimates that are different from each other. On average, SPSS vessels range from 40 to 80 feet in length and are capable of carrying four crew members and more than four-12 metric tons of drugs at a time.5 In addition, they can travel at a speed of up to 13 knots and a distance of 2,500 nautical miles without having to refuel.6 The vessels are specifically designed with low-signature wood and fiberglass construction to evade detection, thus making them incredibly difficult to identify. The structure of an SPSS is purposely shaped to minimize the vessel’s wake, while exhaust pipes are designed to minimize its thermal signature. In addition, it rides close to the surface, with approximately one foot of the craft showing above water, thus significantly reducing the likelihood of visual detection. However, it is important to note that there is no single design or type of SPSS because they are built by more than one group in different locations and undergo continual design modifications.
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 in 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.
Though these vessels require an immense amount of time, money, and secrecy to build, they yield a great deal more in return when a successful shipment arrives. In 2016, the Coast Guard seized a record 45,000 pounds of cocaine with an estimated value of $6 billion, intercepted almost 7,000 people trying to enter the US illegally, and stopped a record-breaking six narco submarines.
The Coast Guard is making great progress in its modernization efforts through the acquisition of new surface assets such as the National Security Cutter (NSC), Fast Response Cutter (FRC) and upcoming Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC). Both the National Security Cutter (NSC) and planned Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC) provide a robust system of C4ISR sensors that will enhance surveillance, detection, classification, identification, and prosecution performance in the offshore environment.
Leveraging this system, the Coast Guard utilizes intelligence sourced from the intelligence community, including DOD, and domestic law enforcement agencies, via the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) to provide all resource fusion and direct tactical cueing of assets to facilitate interdictions. Maritime drug smuggling interdictions yield intelligence and critical access to TCO networks, further expanding the Nation's ability to identify, target, and defeat illicit networks.
The Coast Guard continuously seeks to develop effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance methods and technologies to stay ahead of this evolving threat. Central American nations and their international partners are patrolling waterways and coastlines looking for high-powered boats, commonly referred to as “go-fasts,” and self-propelled “narco-submarines” that can carry up to 11 tons of illegal cargo up to 5,000 miles.
The US Coast Guard seized about 8 tons of cocaine 11 July 2019 from a submarine that it tracked down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Colombia. Coast Guard officials said they acted on a report that a small submarine was carrying drugs in the waters near the South American country. Their footage shows the semi-submersible vessel known as a narco-submarine chased by two Coast Guard boats. A guardsman shouts in Spanish for the boat to stop before jumping onto the hull and banging on the hatch. The officials say they seized more than 7.7 tons of cocaine with a street value of more than 200 million dollars. The Coast Guard arrested the submarine crew on suspicion of smuggling and investigations continued.
The US Coast Guard released a video that showed exactly how one might intercept a fast-moving narco-sub on the high seas -- netting more than 17,000 pounds of cocaine in the process. The event, a video of which was released on July 11, took place on 18 June 2019 in the East Pacific Ocean. In the minute-long video, a member of the Coast Guard is heard yelling at a semi-submersible vessel tearing through the ocean -- a half underwater and half exposed vessel -- and demanding it stop. Members of the guard then jump on the submarine-like boat, eventually forcing the top open to reveal the smugglers inside.
The Coast Guard only catches about one in ten of drug-filled semi-submersible vessels. By 2010, it was estimated that more than one-third of all maritime cocaine flow via the Eastern Pacific area of South America entering the United States was shipped via SPSSs. According to at least one U.S. military official, there was an expectation that up to 90 SPSSs will be launched that year from South America with the capacity to haul hundreds of tons of cocaine with a street value of untold billions.
When the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) needed a target semi-submersible to detect the hidden but determined maritime smuggling operations of the South American drug cartels, it created its own vessel and called it “PLUTO,” after the planet that is so difficult to spot. S&T built PLUTO in 2008 to serve as a surrogate SPSS with many of the same features as the vessels built by the cartels. It is used as a target by DHS and its national security community partners to help test the performance of detection systems and give operators of those systems real world experience under controlled conditions. This testing helps develop new concepts of operation for seaborne, airborne, and space-borne technologies to spot illegal vessels.
In 2009, Customs and Border Protection tested its Dash 8 maritime surveillance aircraft against PLUTO at the Eglin range and near Key West, Florida. These results helped gage the performance of the Dash 8’s SeaVue radar against PLUTO and helped determine detection distances and aspect angles for optimal mission performance. In addition, the U.S. Navy tested one of its P-3 aircraft equipped with maritime surveillance radar system against PLUTO. All such tests were instrumental in helping to verify the performance of sensor capabilities, and provided operators with real-world training which will help determine future tactics. PLUTO is just over 45 feet long, can run roughly 10 knots at maximum speed and can hold a crew of 3 to 4, although it usually operates with only one for safety reasons.
On October 13, 2008, the president signed into law the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 (DTVIA).3 This law was enacted in direct response to the use of SPSS vessels to transport vast amounts of illegal drugs through international waters to the United States. Congress has concluded that the growing use of these vessels is “a serious international problem, facilita[ting] transnational crime, including drug trafficking, and terrorism, [as well as posing] a specific threat to the safety of maritime navigation and the security of the United States.”4 Accordingly, Congress passed the DTVIA, imposing criminal and civil penalties for the knowing operation, attempt, or conspiracy to operate a submersible or semisubmersible vessel that is without nationality in international waters, with the intent to evade detection. This law enables prosecutors to bring criminal charges in the United States even if the vessel and cargo were not recovered. Moreover, for a conviction under the law, the vessel need not be operating in a sovereign nation’s territorial waters as long as the operators use the vessel or engage in a conspiracy to use an unflagged vessel with the intent to evade detection.
Prior to the enactment of the DTVIA, persons transporting drugs in an SPSS who successfully scuttled their vessel escaped criminal charges. Scuttling refers to the purposeful sinking of the vessel by opening valves, flooding the interior, and, thus, sending all of the drugs or other contraband to the bottom of the ocean. With the drugs disposed of, law enforcement personnel lacked evidence of criminal wrongdoing .
These specific types of craft have no legitimate uses, and their potential for causing damage—whether through drug trafficking, illegal aliens, or some other contraband—causes a great deal of concern. The development of larger, longer-range fully submersible vessels, including those operated by remote control with GPS guidance, are underway. Without a crew to arrest and prosecute, law enforcement authorities will have a far more difficult time pursuing those responsible for launching their poison into American cities. The hypothetical doomsday scenarios include the delivery and detonation of a WMD off the U.S. coast, resulting in the loss of countless persons. It is, therefore, incumbent upon governments to arm the law enforcement and intelligence communities with all legal means, including legislation, to defend their citizens.
New radar technology, unmanned aerial vehicles and naval surface vessels, remote laser infrared detection, acoustic sensors, and satellites are technologies being developed and deployed by U.S intelligence, military, and law enforcement entities.
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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