DEA Scores Two Victories Against Stealthy, Sophisticated Latin American Drug Traffickers

By Matthew Harwood

A joint operation between Guatemala's navy and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) interdicted a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) off the coast of Guatemala on Friday, capturing four Colombian nationals and 5 tons of cocaine. The successful interdiction came just a week after DEA-provided intelligence helped Ecuadorian authorities uncover the construction of a full drug-smuggling submarine in the country's remote jungles.

On Friday, the 55-foot-long semi-submersible was caught while navigating the waters off the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The vessels, usually constructed of fiber glass by Colombian narco-traffickers, sit very low in the water and have become a popular method to smuggle drugs close to and into the United States. "There was a sleeping compartment, another (compartment) for the engine, and a third for cargo which was full of cocaine," Defense Ministry Spokesman Col.Byron Gutierrez said during a news conference, according to Reuters.

All four men were taken into custody by DEA agents. The United States, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune, has a bilateral treaty on illegal drug trafficking with Guatemala

Once the submersible's crew knew they were spotted, they unsuccessfully tried to scuttle the vessel before the authorities reached them. If they had succeeded, the vessel along with its five tons of cocaine would have sunk to the ocean bottom. The crew members ostensibly tried to scuttle the vessel in an effort to destroy evidence. But even if they had succeeded in doing so, they still would have faced stiff consequences.

(For more on the U.S. fight against SPSSs, see my "Drug War's Rough Waters," from the June 2009 issue of Security Management.)

As Security Management reported last summer, the United States passed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act in 2008 to ensure submersible crew members could be prosecuted without recovering their cargo. Under the law, anyone operating a submersible without registration or flying a national flag faces a felony charge carrying 15 years in prison or a $1 million fine or both.

Nevertheless, scuttling is still the smart move for SPSS crews, said DEA Special Agent and Public Affairs Officer Michael Sanders. While crew members that successfully scuttle can receive a maximum of 15 years in prison, crew members caught with a cargo-hold full of illegal narcotics can face much stiffer sentences. For instance, a person without a criminal record caught with 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of cocaine can expect to receive a minimum sentence of about 19 years in prison, said Sanders. SPSS crew members cargo holds typically carry tons of illegal drugs, so scuttling is still their best bet.


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