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The Boston Globe August 17, 2008

For US, a terror threat lurks in drug smuggling subs

Shift of cargo to arms and people is feared

By Bryan Bender

KEY WEST, Fla. - Skimming just below the surface, they are extremely difficult to detect from surveillance aircraft or patrol boats. Their sleek design, up to 80 feet in length, can secretly carry several tons of cargo thousands of miles.

These "semi-submersibles," which exhibit some of the same characteristics as military submarines, mark a significant advancement in the ability of drug smugglers to slip past coastal defenses.

So far this year, the Coast Guard says it has encountered at least 27 such vessels headed toward the southern and western United States, more than in the previous six years combined, while far more are believed to have gone undetected, according to US military and law enforcement officials.

The growing number and increased sophistication of the vessels, officially designated "self-propelled semi-submersibles," has set off alarms at the highest levels of the US military and the federal Department of Homeland Security. Counterterrorism officials fear that what drug runners now use to deliver cocaine, terrorists could one day use to sneak personnel or massive weapons into the United States.

Navy Admiral James Stavridis, commander of the US Southern Command, the Miami-based military command that concentrates on Latin America, warned in a recent military journal article, "If drug cartels can ship up to 10 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."

US intelligence officials have concluded the pod-like vessels are being constructed by outside specialists working in "expeditionary shipyards" - remote, makeshift facilities nestled along rivers or estuaries in the jungles of Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine - from which they are transported to the coast for the journey north.

Built with high-tech composite materials and camouflaged to blend in with the ocean, they are estimated to cost up to several million dollars apiece.

Although their interiors are quite Spartan - an engine, a rudimentary bridge with a set of controls and crawl spaces - the submersibles are considered a generational leap beyond the more traditional means of large-scale intracoastal drug smuggling: fishing vessels, powerful "go-fast" racing boats, or commercial shipping containers .

"This is a more sophisticated way of getting the dope into the country," said John Pike, a weapons and technology specialist at GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., think tank. A semi-submersible, he said, "is harder to track than an airplane or a regular boat and it does not rely on an extensive network of corruption the way smuggling through a container port might. "

The vessels, according to officials in Florida who have studied a captured semi-submersible, are outfitted with quiet diesel engines and dual propellers, features commonly found on military submarines. They are carefully ballasted and are designed so that the top deck breaks the water's surface by no more than 18 inches - just enough to take in oxygen and release exhaust.

The vessels are very difficult to detect by radar and are all but impossible to see from more than a few thousand yards away.

"That is a very, very low profile," said Air Force Colonel Dennis Ployer, who runs the security and intelligence directorate at SOUTHCOM headquarters in Miami.

Indeed, SOUTHCOM asserts that the Colombian drug cartels are almost certainly receiving highly advanced technical assistance to fabricate the vessels, but declined to discuss where they believe that help is coming from.

"Where the technology is going right now they most likely have to have some outside expertise," said Renee Novakoff, a senior analyst at the military command.

Pike believes the semi-submersibles' physical characteristics are characteristic of naval designs from Russia - a key destination for Colombian cocaine and where military submarine designers have been desperate for work since the Soviet Union dissolved, diminishing its armed forces.

"During the Cold War the Russians had hundreds of submarines and their submarine-building has collapsed," Pike said. "There is already senior-level contact between Russian gangsters and Colombian gangsters. There are enough mobsters in Russia to make the approach for [the Colombian drug organizations]."

Despite the semi-submersible's multimillion-dollar price tag, they are apparently considered disposable, one-way transportation: After delivering their cargo at a pre-determined drop-off point, they are abandoned at sea.

Nevertheless, as a means of delivering such large drug payloads, the vessels appear to be paying for themselves many times over. One kilogram of cocaine can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the street, and each semi-submersible can carry well over 9,000 kilos - a payload worth tens of millions of dollars or more.

"They are sophisticated vessels," said Rear Admiral Steve Branham, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District in Miami, who said the vessels have been detected in both the Caribbean and in the Eastern Pacific off the coast of Mexico. "They are able to carry their cargo readily at a fairly good speed [and] they are easily scuttled."

"That makes it harder for us to collect evidence," he added.

In several recent incidents, crew members were captured after scuttling their craft but authorities released them because there was no physical evidence of wrongdoing, Branham said. Legislation now being considered by Congress aims to address that loophole by outlawing the use of semi-submersibles, which do not fly the flag of their country of origin as required of other sea-going vessels.

Branham, whose Coast Guard district encompasses 1.8 million square miles, said the submersibles - usually with a crew of no more than two - appear to make contact with other private vessels at sea to provision them with food and water on their long journeys from South America.

That, he said, is another sign that the semi-submersible smuggling business may be maturing into a "niche industry" that caters to the drug cartels but could be hired to deliver any cargo.

Previously, smugglers "were not highly paid," he said. "They were the average Joe. Now, with semi-submersible vessels and supply vessels at way points . . . there is a much more elaborate transportation system than there used to be."

Where it could evolve next is what worries US security officials and private analysts.

Stephen Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the vessels "could have more sober homeland security implications."

"They have created a far more sophisticated and, from a security perspective, potentially far more daunting maritime threat," he added. "If you are figuring out how to evade US borders this is clearly a more advanced avenue."


Copyright 2008, Globe Newspaper Company