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June 11, 2009 / jeni

Cocaine Submarines: The Next ‘Miracle on the Hudson’?

subThere are many ways to smuggle drugs. Some of them are remarkably effective; others, not so much:

Hide “mini bricks” of heroin inside bricks of cocaine. It is cheaper to pay someone to ship coke than it is heroin. Maybe they should have gotten some quotes from Fedex or UPS.

A load of marijuana in the floorboard of a truck carrying two live bears (Corky and Pumpkin) . Talk about a good distraction.

Hair coated with cocaine. This seems like a lot of work.

Thinly sliced sheets of cocaine made to look just like Pringles. Pringles might be the more addicting thing here.

Well, never mind these idiots. The Mexican drug cartels have found a much more effective method — so effective it is nearly impossible to interdict successfully. From The Washington Post:

When anti-narcotics agents first heard that drug cartels were building an armada of submarines to transport cocaine, they thought it was a joke. Now U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles.

An experimental oddity just two years ago, these strange semi-submarines are the cutting edge of drug trafficking today. They ferry hundreds of tons of cocaine for powerful Mexican cartels that are taking over the Pacific Ocean route for most northbound shipments, according to the Colombian navy.

The sub-builders are even trying to develop a remote-controlled model, officials say. “That means no crew. That means just cocaine, or whatever, inside the boat,” said Michael Braun, a former chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The subs are powered by ordinary diesel engines and built of simple fiberglass in clandestine shipyards in the Colombian jungle. U.S. officials expect 70 or more to be launched this year with a potential cargo capacity of 380 tons of cocaine, worth billions of dollars in the United States…

The submersibles are equipped with technologies that make them difficult to intercept, even though U.S. forces use state-of-the-art submarine warfare strategies against them. Authorities say most slip through their net. “You try finding a floating log in the middle of the Pacific,” one DEA agent said.

It’s common to think of drug smuggling as a low-tech process — it’s human mules swallowing cocaine, or donkeys loaded with opium. Maybe trucks or boats or small airplanes. These subs may not measure up to US naval standards, but they’re not exactly floating buckets either:

“These vessels are intelligently designed. They are not very comfortable, but they are now very seaworthy. They are capable of carrying multi-ton cargos. They can travel thousands of miles without refuel or resupply. And they are very hard to detect,” said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, director of the Joint Interagency Task Force South, which pursues drug interdiction in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific Ocean.

Nimmich stood on a dock at the task force’s headquarters in Key West, Fla., beside a vessel dubbed Big Foot II. Captured last year 350 miles off the Guatemalan-Mexican coast, the sub had a four-man Colombian crew and 6.4 tons of cocaine aboard, worth more than $100 million.

Almost 60 feet long, the craft employed water-cooled exhaust mufflers to reduce its infrared heat signal. It was camouflaged in blue-gray paint. A small conning tower jutted from the deck at an angle designed to confuse radar signals. The latest submersibles can go 3,000 miles without refueling.

“You don’t want to see one of these trekking up the Hudson River,” Ruddy said.

And just in case we missed the inference in that last point:

U.S. officials fear that the rogue vessels could be used by terrorists intent on reaching the United States with deadly cargos.

It would be an interesting process.  A terrorist group on its own would likely struggle to acquire the funding, expertise, resources and sanctuary to develop and build its own sub. Drug cartels, however, will take the time and money (around $1 million per sub) to develop this method of delivery, because the potential payout is so enormous — billions of dollars.

So now that these subs exist, how likely is it that a terrorist group could acquire one? First, they would probably have to come up with a big payout — not only for the cost of the sub, but perhaps some amount to compensate for the drugs revenue lost by not using the sub for that purpose. Second, they would need to acquire the expertise to use the sub successfully. Manned subs encounter dangerous conditions and require some skill to operate; remote-controlled subs would require some technical expertise. Those currently using the subs could transfer this knowledge to a terrorist group, for a price — but I wonder if this element would be more difficult to obtain. It is one thing to sell an object to some dodgy outfit (especially if you already work for a dodgy outfit). Selling expertise — in effect, training — begins to fall into the realm of collaboration or cooperation. Some criminal actors are reluctant to cooperate too closely with terrorist groups, as the consequences of getting caught up in the War on Terror could be more severe than those suffered under the War on Drugs.

Criminal actors are not just motivated by money, but by their own self-interests. I’m not really sure that given the amount of money the cartels are making off the drug trade, that they would risk the potential fallout from cooperating with a terrorist group intent on a mass-casualty attack on American soil. But I could be wrong, so it would be nice to get some kind of handle on this problem sooner rather than later.



Leave a Comment
  1. patternbuilder / Jun 12 2009 00:15

    The war on drugs has been attempting to reduce the supply for decades. We need to reduce demand for these drugs.
    The new functional MRI’s are showing that gettting a person off the drugs for 18 to 24 months can return brain function to a normal, non-addicted level. And it doesn’t have to be voluntary treatment to work.

    If every addict currently in jail underwent mandatory drug treatment, we’d cut into those cartel profits. After all, cigarette smoking is down considerably and those are legal.

  2. kiers / Jun 14 2009 03:49

    terrible. it is OUT OF CONTROL.

    in my opinion economies of scale (providing maximal revenue to the “factory” in the supplier country) will more than compensate for cost of sub! it means more drugs warehoused near country of use with less risk due to less frequent border crossings! [look at toyota, it moved its factories to the land where demand is highest: USA]. In fact the complementary risk of transferring that much money just inceased as well! these drug guys are more and more becoming like forbes businesses!

  3. Scytaleus / Jun 17 2009 12:20

    Everything that is forbidden has a special taste.
    Why not make drugs legal and just use the money invested in fighting drug cartels into education against using drugs?.
    No more cartels, no more mafia, more tax revenue.
    Just remember the days of 1920-1933…

    • Riley / Jun 18 2009 01:16

      Hell no! Why would a government do that? Their whole claim to fame is to protect you from big, bad ogres. Solving a big problem is not in their interest.

      They don’t do sensible.

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