DEA Scores Two Victories Against Stealthy, Sophisticated Latin American Drug Traffickers
In the past two weeks, the Drug Enforcement Administration helped interdict a drug-running semi-submersible off Guatemala while providing intelligence that uncovered the construction of a full submarine for drug smuggling in Ecuador.
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.
Last week's interdiction is the DEA's second victory this month battling drug trafficking organizations' new fleet of sophisticated smuggling technologies. On July 2, the DEA provided Ecuadorian military and police authorities with intelligence that uncovered for the first time the construction of a full submarine for cocaine smuggling in the jungles of Ecuador . One individual was taken into custody by Ecuadorian authorities during the raid.
"The twin-screw, diesel electric-powered submarine is about 30 meters long and about nine feet high from the deck plates to the ceiling. The sophisticated vessel also has a conning tower, periscope and air conditioning system," the DEA press release states.
The discovery didn't come as a surprise to U.S. officials—drug enforcement official and the intelligence community have long predicted drug traffickers would build or purchase full submarines for their underground business. "It was only a matter of time," said Sanders.
"The advent of the narco-submarine presents new detection challenges for maritime interdiction forces," DEA Andean Regional Director Jay Bergman said in a statement. "The submarine’s nautical range, payload capacity and quantum leap in stealth have raised the stakes for the counter-drug forces and the national security community alike.”
♦ Photo of SPSS by U.S. Coast Guard
♦ Photo of Ecuadorian drug sub by DEA