A Narco Submarine is a type of custom-made ocean-going self-propelled submersible vessel built by drug traffickers to smuggle drugs. They are especially known to be used by Colombian drug cartel members to export cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, which is often then transported overland to the United States. The first known vessels, detected in 1993, were semi-submersibles since they could not dive: most of the craft was submerged with little more than the cockpit and the exhaust gas pipes above the water. Modern narco-submarines are fully submersible, designed specifically to be difficult to detect visually or by radar, sonar and infrared systems.
Colombia's Pacific coastline, where muddy rivers loop into the ocean, has long been a smugglers' paradise. Behind the jagged cliffs that jut into the ocean is a vast jungle, laced with mangrove-fringed coves and virtually thousands of miles of waterways, apt for clandestine shipyards. A Colombian Navy Commander stated that it is most striking to notice the logistical capacity required of these criminals in order to take all the material into the heart of the jungle, including heavy equipment such as propulsion gear and generators. Sometimes they are put together in pieces and then reassembled in other locations under the jungle canopy, in camps outfitted with sleeping quarters for workers. The narco-submarines can cost about $2 million USD and take upward of a year to build. Despite the costs, some of the craft are intended for one-time use, being abandoned at sea after a successful delivery. After all, their cargoes carry a street value of up to $400 million. On other seized craft however, officials found zinc bars used as sacrificial anodes, lessening corrosion on metal parts exposed to seawater. As corrosion would not be a concern on a single trip but is a factor influencing long-term durability, this is a clear indication that multiple use was intended. This, in turn, opens up the question of any illicit return cargo, like weapons, that they might carry back to Colombia.
The design and manufacturing techniques employed in their construction have improved over time: the boats have become faster, more seaworthy, and of higher capacity than earlier models. A 60 feet (18.3 m) long narco-submarine can reach speeds of 11 miles per hour (18 km/h; 9.6 kn) and carry up to 10 short tons (8.9 long tons; 9.1 t) of cocaine. They are typically made of fiberglass, powered by a 300 hp (220 kW)/350 hp (260 kW) diesel engine and manned by a crew of four. They have enough cargo space to carry two to ten tons of cocaine, carry large fuel tanks which give them a range of 2,000 miles (3,200 km; 1,700 nmi), and are equipped with satellite navigation systems. There is no head (toilet), and accommodation is cramped.
Because much of its structure is fiberglass and it travels barely under the surface, the vessel is nearly impossible to detect via sonar or radar, and very difficult to spot visually. The newer models pipe their exhaust along the bottom to cool it before venting it, making the boat even less susceptible to infrared detection. They are most easily spotted visually from the air, though even that is difficult as they are camouflaged with blue paint and produce almost no wake. They have ballast tanks to alter the vessel's buoyancy so that they ride low in the water.
These are the typical characteristics as stated by the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South:
- Hull material: wood, fiberglass, or steel
- Length 40 to 80 feet (12.2 to 24.4 m)
- Freeboard 18 inches (45.7 cm)
- Engines: single or twin diesel
- Fuel capacity 1,500 US gallons (1,200 imp gal; 5,700 L)
- Range 2,000 miles (3,200 km; 1,700 nmi)
- Speed 6 knots (11 km/h; 6.9 mph) or more
- Crew: 3
- Capacity 4–12 tonnes (4.4–13 short tons) or 4–12 tonnes (3.9–11.8 long tons) cocaine
- Control: human or remote
Narco-submarines were considered by officials to be an oddity until 2000, when Colombian police discovered a true steel 30-meter (98.4 ft) half-built submarine in a warehouse outside Bogota. The double-hulled steel vessel could have traveled 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km; 2,300 mi), dived 330 feet (100.6 m) and carried 150 short tons (133.9 long tons; 136.1 t)-200 short tons (178.6 long tons; 181.4 t) of cocaine.
On 3 July 2010, the Ecuadorian authorities seized a fully functional, completely submersible submarine in the jungles bordering Ecuador and Colombia. This diesel electric submarine had a cylindrical fiberglass and Kevlar hull 31 meters (101.7 ft) long, a 3-meter (9.8 ft) conning tower with periscope and air conditioning. The vessel had the capacity for about 10 metric tons (11 short tons; 9.8 long tons) of cargo, a crew of five or six people, the ability to fully submerge down to 65 feet (19.8 m), and capable of long-range underwater operation. Ecuadorean authorities seized the vessel before its maiden voyage.
On 14 February 2011, another submarine was seized by the Colombian navy. The 31 m (101.7 ft)-long fibreglass and Kevlar vessel was found hidden in a jungle area in Timbiqui, in south-western Colombia. It was capable of travelling 9 m (29.5 ft) below water and it could carry four people and up to 8 metric tons (8.8 short tons; 7.9 long tons) of cargo.
Semi-submersibles are hard to spot from patrol ships, but are easy to detect from the air. To address this problem, a new concept was adopted by smugglers. Instead of a full-featured self-propelled ship, a "torpedo"-style cargo container is used with a ballast tank (submersion control) to keep it at about 30 m (98 ft 5 in) under water while being towed by a regular fishing boat. If a patrol ship is spotted, the "torpedo" cargo container is released. While still submerged, it automatically releases one buoy concealed as a wooden log and equipped with a location transmitter system for a second support fishing vessel to retrieve it and continue the cocaine delivery. None of these boats do anything suspicious that could reveal their drug smuggling activity.
The buoy contains a mechanism to temporarily raise and then lower its antenna and transmit its coordinates in encrypted form a few times per day. This system was adapted from existing buoys used on tuna fishing nets. One of its designers claims a 90% shipment delivery success rate, and stated that the "torpedo" development was heading towards a remote control feature using encrypted signals transmitted via satellite.
Routes and seizures
Experts estimated that 25 to 40 cocaine semi-subs departed from South America in 2007, and expected that figure to double in 2008. The western Colombian shore topography is near ideal for transporting the cocaine produced in clandestine laboratories in nearby Nariño department. About a third of the 600 short tons (535.7 long tons; 544.3 t) of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast and a significant amount is being carried in semi-submersibles. The U.S. Homeland Security estimates that drug submarines now account for 32 percent of all maritime cocaine flow between Latin America and the United States.
While the subs are most frequently used from the Pacific coast of Colombia, they are showing up elsewhere as well. The Coast Guard says drug runners have devised a complete logistics system, with fishing boats stationed along the way to warn the crews against patrols and provide them with food and water and resorting to putting refueling vessels far offshore so drug-carrying boats can avoid coastal areas. For traffickers, reaching Mexico is well worth the trouble, as a 10-short-ton (8.9-long-ton; 9.1 t) load can fetch nearly US$200 million wholesale. Fishermen hired specifically for the task are often at the controls, and those who complete the trip successfully are paid about US$3,000.
Smugglers normally unload their cargo onto fast power boats for the final leg to shore and the semi-submersible is scuttled. None have been sighted unloading at North American ports or beaches. In 2006, a 10-meter (32.8 ft) long sub was found abandoned on the northern coast of Spain, where the authorities suspect the crew had unloaded a cargo of cocaine before fleeing. In March 2006, the Calabrian mafia ('Ndrangheta) ordered a shipment of 10 short tons (8.9 long tons; 9.1 t) of cocaine to be transported by a narco-submarine from Colombia to Italy, but the vessel was discovered by the Colombian police while it was still under construction.
During 2007, thirteen of the vessels were seized on Colombian dry land or stopped at sea by Colombian or U.S. patrol boats, more than in the previous fourteen years combined, but arrests are rare. When clandestine shipyards were discovered, workmen escaped into the jungle. In some instances semi-subs are towed behind other vessels and are scuttled if detected. Authorities are investigating reports that some semi-submersibles are unmanned and are operated remotely.
In the first six months of 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy detected 42 drug subs heading north towards the United States and off the coast of Central America, but few seizures resulted. The service estimated that 85 individual events would bring in about 600 short tons (535.7 long tons; 544.3 t) of cocaine by the end of 2008. As of 2007[update], the U.S. Coast Guard was adjusting its underwater acoustic sensors to listen to a narco-submarine's engine over long distances.
On July 16, 2008, the Mexican Navy intercepted a 10 meters (32.8 ft) long narco-submarine travelling about 200 kilometres (120 mi) southwest of Oaxaca. Mexican Navy Special Forces rappelled from a helicopter on to its deck and arrested four smugglers before they could scuttle their vessel. The vessel was found to be loaded with 5.8 short tons (5.2 long tons; 5.3 t) of cocaine and was towed to Huatulco, Oaxaca, by a Mexican Navy patrol boat.
On September 12, 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard captured a semi-submersible about 563 kilometers (350 mi) west of Guatemala; it was carrying 7 short tons (6.3 long tons; 6.4 t) of cocaine. The 18 meters (59.1 ft) long steel and fiberglass craft was detected by a U.S. Navy aircraft as part of Operation Panama Express and was intercepted by Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 402 which was deployed aboard USS McInerney. Five days later, a 60-foot (18.3 m) semi-submersible was seized by the Coast Guard cutter Midgett about 322 kilometers (200 mi) south of Guatemala.
In late January, 2009, a Sri Lankan Army task force found three semi-subs being built by the LTTE Tamil rebels in the jungles of Mullaitivu, making them the first non-governmental organization to develop underwater weapons.
On June 1 and 2, 2009 the Colombian authorities seized three narco-submarines on the shores of the Pacific coast, one of them loaded with 1.5 short tons (1.3 long tons; 1.4 t) of cocaine. The Colombian navy had intercepted or discovered 33 narco-submarines by 2009.