As noted, there have been only two successful captures of SPSSs. The first successful seizure occurred in November 2006, when a Coast Guard cutter nabbed an SPSS they dubbed Big Foot. The Coast Guard found four metric tons of cocaine inside its hull. The second incident was when Luceno and his men of TACLET South made their nighttime boarding on September 13, 2008.
There have, however, been other incidents where vessels were not captured but where the smuggling was successfully interrupted—or interdicted. That has occurred 10 times since November 2006. Including the seizures and the interdictions, the USCG estimates that it prevented more than $2 billion worth of illicit drugs from entering the United States.
Most interdictions occur when a U.S. Coast Guard’s routine patrol aircraft spots an SPSS cruising just below the waves and radios for assistance. Typically, the Coast Guard’s TACLET South then attempts to interdict the SPSS as part of its counter-narcotics mission.
Burying the evidence. Seizures have been rare, because when the SPSS crew realizes that it has been detected by an aircraft or Coast Guard vessel, the crew immediately scuttles the vessel and jumps into the sea, allowing the evidence to plunge to the sea floor with the craft. Traffickers pack the illicit cargo in a forward compartment so that it will not float to the surface as the vessel sinks.
From the moment the crew begins to scuttle, the SPSS will take 10 to 15 minutes to sink. Most of the time, the vessel has been taking in water long before authorities arrive, making it too dangerous to board. Any boarding officer caught inside the hull when the SPSS sank could get trapped and drown.
Evidence recovery attempts aren’t an option in such deep waters. “The depth of water is so great that it would take something on the magnitude of Navy sub salvage to get down there and retrieve that thing,” says Espinoza.
“SPSSs are perfect evidence-destruction machines,” says Robinson. “They go down like a rock,” taking the evidence with them.
But what was especially maddening to Coast Guard officers until recently was their inability to do anything about crews who successfully scuttled their SPSS. Once the vessel sank, taking the evidence with it, the crew members simply jumped into the ocean and presented themselves as innocent seafarers; the incident became a search-and-rescue operation, Robinson says.
Espinoza recounts the stories SPSS crews would spin: “What are you talking about?” they say. “We’re fishermen, and our vessel went down, and thank god you guys came and saved us.”
Without evidence, the only way to prosecute crewmembers for drug smuggling was to obtain confessions. That just wasn’t going to happen, says Espinoza, because the crews knew the law: “No contraband, no evidence, no prosecution.”
Tired of having to let crews return to Colombia without being prosecuted, the Department of Justice and the Coast Guard teamed up to write language for a bill criminalizing the operation of an SPSS without a national flag of origin. The two agencies then took their proposal to Capitol Hill.
The legislation found a willing sponsor in Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-CA), who had seven co-sponsors including Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
When the bill was debated on the House floor, Poe pointed out the national security implications, stating, “While we believe these SPSS vessels are currently only carrying narcotics, nothing prevents them from falling into the hands of terrorists,” he said. “If these vessels can carry 13 tons of cocaine, they can carry weapons of mass destruction just as easily.”
Congress was convinced and voted overwhelmingly to send the bill to the White House. On October 13 of last year, President George W. Bush signed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act into law. The law makes it a felony to occupy an SPSS as well as a full submersible in international waters unless it is registered with a country, something the drug smugglers aren’t able to do. Those caught and convicted could receive a maximum of 15 years in prison, a $1 million civil penalty, or both.
Now even if the Coast Guard fails to seize the vessel and its cargo, it can still charge the crew with a felony, based on records regarding the vessel’s registration status. The Coast Guard had already used the law in five cases as of April, though no convictions have been obtained as the cases have not yet gone through the court system.