Although SPSSs have been around more than a decade and a half, they were not a popular method of conveyance for drug running initially. Originally, Colombian narcotraffickers relied on fishing vessels or “go-fast” speedboats to smuggle drugs, mostly cocaine but heroin and marijuana as well, into the United States. However, the Colombian government’s improved vessel registration and tracking systems, along with better cooperation and collaboration with the United States, has forced narcotraffickers to innovate.
Increasingly, their choice has been the SPSS, Coast Guard Cmdr. Timothy J. Espinoza told maritime security stakeholders at the 2008 Maritime Security Expo in Long Beach, California, last November. Espinoza is the head of Tactical Law Enforcement Team South (TACLET South), a deployable specialized maritime force stationed in Miami. He and his men have increasingly run into semi-submersibles since their first encounter in 2006.
According to the State Department’s 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), SPSSs are estimated to have hauled 423 metric tons of cocaine in 2008. Of that combined load, it is estimated that only 71 metric tons were prevented from getting to the market. Coast Guard interdictions accounted for 56.3 metric tons of that total.
Drug trafficking organizations use Colombia’s dense canopy, swamps, and mangroves to build SPSSs near river basins connected to the sea. The tough topography helps shield the shipyards from aerial surveillance. For added protection, most SPSSs are built in areas controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the communist insurgency waging war against the Colombian state since the mid-1960s. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that 70 percent of Colombia’s cocaine comes from these areas.
Built for Stealth
An SPSS is basically a motor-propelled, flat-decked vessel with a pilothouse that rises only about 18 inches above the waterline. It has often been described as a cross between a submarine and a cigar boat.
Over time, the builders of these vessels have developed variations, according to Espinoza. Early in their genesis, SPSSs were made of wood and fiberglass. Today, many are constructed of steel hulls, armed with modern electronics to avoid detection and GPS navigation systems to avoid the need for external communications that authorities can home in on. Pilothouses, like shark fins, remain above the water line for navigation but continue to be built closer to the waterline to decrease the chances of being spotted.
SPSSs range from as small as 30 feet to as large as 80 feet. They can carry anywhere from 4 to 12 metric tons of cocaine in a single load and can go up to 12 mph, traveling up to 2,000 miles without refueling, says Espinoza.
SPSSs are built for stealth and typically travel during the night to make interdiction nearly impossible. “Even when you’re right on top of them,” Espinoza says, “they’re hard to detect.” And detection will only prove harder, government officials believe, as narcotraffickers move from manned semi-submersibles to remote-controlled submersibles.
SPSSs are believed to operate predominantly in the Eastern Pacific, one of the three routes within the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone (WHTZ)—the area identified as being used to move cocaine into the United States. The Eastern Pacific accounted for 68 percent of all cocaine moving through the WHTZ in 2007, and SPSSs carried a greater portion of the load than before. SPSSs are rarely detected in the Western or Central Caribbean, the other two transit routes in the WHTZ. But the true numbers are hard to pin down.
What makes it difficult to determine the number of SPSSs isn’t just their stealth, it’s also the drug traffickers’ “one and done” policy. All evidence points to SPSS crews scuttling their vessels after each drop-off, which typically occurs at sea after a rendezvous with a Mexican drug trafficking vessel, says Espinoza. After loading their cargo onto the ship, the crew sinks the SPSS, boards the ship, and both are taken somewhere along Mexico’s western coast.
From there, Espinoza says, the traffickers use land routes through Mexico to smuggle the drugs into the United States while the SPSS crew travels home to Colombia. Ninety percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States transits through Mexico, according to estimates cited by the State Department’s 2009 INCSR.
Economics. Drug lords can afford to pay the four-to-five member crews $100,000 each per trip and sink the one-way craft, which costs up to $2 million to build, because the value of the cargo can exceed $100 million. And by having the crew fly back to Colombia, the narcotraffickers can have them begin another run long before they would have returned via an SPSS voyage, which could take two weeks. The one-way trips also slash in half the opportunity for Central American, Colombian, Mexican, or U.S. government maritime law enforcement personnel to interdict an SPSS.
Cargo questions. The biggest fear associated with SPSSs is that their cargo isn’t limited to drugs. “If they can smuggle drugs, what else can they smuggle?” asks Rusty Payne, DEA spokesman. The hypotheticals include illegal immigrants, guns, terrorists, and the most terrifying of all: weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
When asked if fears of a semi-submersible smuggling WMDs into the United States are legitimate, a U.S. counternarcotics official who wished to remain anonymous told Security Management that “one of these things is as big as your bedroom or bigger, and it can go largely undetected all the way to the U.S.” He added, “You have to connect the dots, but they can put whatever they want in there.”