The glow of the second illumination flare still hung in the night as Petty Officer First Class Pedro Lucena and two members of his boarding party jumped on board the nearly submerged vessel, which the U.S. Coast Guard believed was being used to smuggle cocaine into the United States. The Coast Guard boarding officer and his two shipmates began banging on the hatches and windows of the vessel, ordering it to stop. The flat top rocked back and forth as the pilot within propelled the vessel at 12 mph through the Eastern Pacific Ocean in an effort to throw the Coast Guardsmen perched above into the dark waters below.
The hatch suddenly opened and hands appeared signaling surrender, but not before the crew opened the scuttling valve allowing the waters of the Pacific Ocean to rush in. Their goal was to have the vessel go down as they departed, taking with it the evidence against them: 7 metric tons of cocaine that was hidden in the hull, with a street value of $187 million. But Lucena wasn’t about to let this prize sink into the deep. Weapon drawn, he ordered the men to close the scuttling valve, and they did.
The surprise attack had worked, which was no small feat. It represented only the second successful capture by the Coast Guard of a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS), a highly maneuverable, fast, and hard-to-track watercraft that is increasingly used by drug smugglers.
Nobody knows how many times SPSSs have been used to smuggle drugs into the United States between their first sighting in 1993 and today, says Lt. Cmdr. Brian W. Robinson, chief of the Coast Guard’s Operations Law Group. The recent upsurge in encounters, however, has been dramatic.
From 2001 to 2006, there were 23 confirmed SPSS incidents. That’s an average of fewer than five per year. That number had jumped to 42 incidents in one year by 2007, and sightings nearly doubled in 2008, rising to 77.
Another way to look at the size of the problem is that in 2006, the Consolidated Counterdrug Database, maintained by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, estimated that only 1 percent of all cocaine smuggled via the water routes smugglers use in the Western Hemisphere was packed inside an SPSS. By 2007, that estimate had jumped to 16 percent.
“The projections for 2009 are much higher,” Robinson says, without getting specific.
Drug cartels’ use of SPSSs and the United States’ response efforts, discussed ahead, exemplify the unending cat-and-mouse nature of the drug wars. The SPSS issue sheds light on the larger narcotrafficking challenge and illustrates how difficult it is to assess who’s winning on the battlefield.