New Law and Bilateral Agreements Help U.S. Stop Semi-Submersible Drug Smuggling

By Matthew Harwood

LONG  BEACH, California – Representatives from the U.S. government discussed new strategies to fight the increasing use of self propelled semi-submersibles (SPSSs) by Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers at the 2008 Marine Security Expo on Wednesday.

“SPSSs are a very serious security concern,” said Nicholas J. Kolen, section chief for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Office of Global Enforcement, because their size allows smugglers the option of trafficking not only drugs, but illegal immigrants, money, and in the government’s nightmare scenario, weapons of mass destruction.

Semi-submersibles are built by the Colombian drug cartels in the lawless jungles and river basins of Colombia, which are under the control of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist insurgency increasingly active in the illicit drug trade. Ranging from lengths of 30 to 80 feet and built using fiberglass or a steel hull, SPSSs can hold up to 12 metric tons of cocaine.

They also have other advantages that make them well suited for illegal activity.

SPSSs are virtually invisible from the air. “They are hard to detect unless you are right on top of them,” said Commander Timothy Espinoza of the United States Coast Guard’s Tactical Law Enforcement Unit. Most SPSSs are spotted by USCG helicopters or U.S. Navy aircraft.

They are also fast, moving at six to 12 knots (between seven and 14 miles per hour). Better yet, they can cross great distances, covering a maximum range of 2,000 miles.

After unloading the SPSS cargo or upon detection by law enforcement or naval forces, traffickers can open “scuttle valves.”  Water then fills the cabin and the semi-submersible sinks to the bottom of the ocean, destroying any evidence inside.

Scuttling occurs whether the smugglers are successful or not, therefore semi-submersibles are built to be disposable. SPSSs cost about $1 million each, small change compared to the amount of drugs they can carry. In mid-September, the United States Coast Guard captured a SPSS containing 7 metric tons of cocaine, worth $166.6 million on the street. The capture was the first of two successful interdictions that week.

Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers in the Eastern Pacific Ocean have started to collaborate more closely to move cocaine from Colombia through Mexico and then into the United States. (The use of SPSSs on the Caribbean side of Central America is unheard of so far, experts say, mostly because traffickers use fast boats.)

Drug traffickers in Colombia build the semi-submersibles and then load them with cocaine. The SPSS, manned by three or four men, then departs from Colombia to a rendezvous point somewhere off the coast of Mexico. Mexican drug traffickers meet the SPSS, unload the cargo onto a ship, and then again offload it on Mexican soil. The drugs then move by land into the United States.

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The United States, however, with the help of bilateral partners such as Colombia and Mexico have developed strategies to stop the smuggling of drugs in SPSSs.

Last month, the United States legislation went into effect that makes the operation of unregistered SPSSs illegal.

The “Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008,” signed into law by President Bush, sets stiff penalties for those discovered operating or traveling in a SPSS or an unregistered full submersible. If convicted, individuals can serve a maximum jail term of 15 years and pay a $1 million civil penalty, according to Kolen.

The new law also closes a loophole that has frustrated the U.S. government, Espinoza said. Before the law, traffickers could scuttle their SPSS, get rescued by the USCG, and then be returned to their country of origin because there was no evidence of wrongdoing. The drugs, destroyed and unrecoverable, fell to the bottom of the ocean with the semi-submersible.

“The vessels have no legitimate purpose besides smuggling drugs,” Kolen said. The new law acknowledges that fact.

The USCG, he said, was instrumental in the pushing for the passage of the bill and also won another victory by including language in the bill that prohibits the operation of submersibles as well. Drug traffickers have already built four generations of SPSSs with steadily increasing technological sophistication and intelligence reports say they plan to build full submersibles that can travel completely underneath the water.

The U.S., according to Kolen, is also working with all relevant partners to combat the use of SPSSs. Colombia has already authorized the U.S. Navy and the USCG to operate in its territorial waters with Colombian armed forces and law enforcement cooperation. Mexico, as well, has become much more cooperative with the U.S. government on SPSS issues, he said.

The U.S. Navy and USCG do have authority to engage SPSSs when found in international waters, according to Espinoza, although he declined to comment how the SPSS's pilot and crew are detained and prosecuted.

He did, however, say that the USCG, the U.S. Navy, and the DEA are working together on best practices and guidelines for how to successfully and legally engage semi-submersibles when encountered at sea.

Their efforts will be made easier, according to Espinoza, if the U.S. government continues to sign bilateral agreements with other nations to allow the U.S. Navy and USCG to chase SPSSs into territorial waters. Once discovered, SPSSs race for the territorial waters of countries the U.S. does not have bilateral agreements with. Espinoza would not specify which countries have not signed bilateral agreements with the United States.

Despite recent legislative and interdiction victories, efforts of the U.S. government and its international partners to stop smuggling via SPSS are rarely successful.

“We are making progress, but a lot [of SPSSs] are getting through,” Kolen said.

When asked a percentage, Espinoza shrugged, “A bunch.”

Remember the cliché “big ocean, small boat,” he said.

For video of the second successful USCG interdiction of a SPSS in September 2008, watch below:


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