Narco submarine

Narco submarine

A narco submarine (also called narco sub, drug sub, Big Foot submarine and Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible (SPSS)) is a home-made marine vessel built by drug traffickers to smuggle their goods. They are especially known to be used by Colombian drug cartel members to export cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

First detected in 1993, they are popularly called submarines, though strictly speaking they are semi-submersibles because they cannot dive and most of the craft glides under the water with little beyond the cockpit and the exhaust tubes above the water. In other words, a narco sub is a surface vessel with a very low freeboard. Due to their low profile and fiberglass construction, they are nearly undetectable with radar, sonar and infrared systems.

Cocaine smuggling sea vessels

During the 1980s, fast, powerful go-fast boats became notorious as the drug smuggling boat of choice in many parts of the world. Due to more effective radar coverage, Colombian drug cartels are now adapting to semi-submersible use. Some of the vessels, with whimsically shaped fins, and ducts and pipes sticking out, bring to mind the Confederate H. L. Hunley and Captain Nemo's Nautilus from Jules Verne's novel. Others are cigar-shaped, narrow and hydrodynamic, not unlike the World War I German U-boats.

The first time the U.S. Coast Guard found one, authorities dubbed it 'Big Foot' because they had heard rumors that such things existed, but nobody had actually seen one. It was late 2006 when a 'Big Foot' was seized 145 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Costa Rica carrying several tons of cocaine. [ [ Submarine with cocaine seized off Costa Rica] ] In 2006, American officials say they detected only three; now they are spotting an average of ten per month, but only one out of ten is seized, as their crew scuttle them upon interception. [ [ Waving, not drowning] ] [ [ Another cocaine-laden submarine sinks off Colombia] ]

Little is known about who is behind the new semi-submersibles. One theory is that is part of an effort by Colombian cocaine producers to win back from their Mexican rivals-partners a bigger slice of the profits from drugs. In the 1990s most cocaine began to enter the United States across its southern land border, rather than across the Caribbean. That allowed Mexican gangs to oust Colombians from much of the lucrative distribution business in American cities. Another theory by the U.S. Navy says there is evidence that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is collaborating with trafficking groups to fund its armed activities.


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. [ [,0,6804696.story Drug traffickers use submersibles to ferry narcotics] ] A Colombian Navy Commander stated that it is most striking to notice the logistical capacity of these criminals to take all this material into the heart of the jungle, including heavy equipment like propulsion gear and generators. [ [ Fact sheet on Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible (SPSS)] ] 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 up to $1 million USD and take nearly a year to build.They were considered by officials to be an oddity until 2000, when Colombian police discovered a convert|24|m|ft|sing=on submarine, half-built with the help of North American and Russian engineers, in a warehouse outside Bogota. [ [ The Colombian Cartels] ] The double-hulled vessel could have traveled convert|2000|nmi|km, dived convert|330|ft|m and carried 150 tons of cocaine. [ [ The Colombian Cartels] ] Now it seems the traffickers have perfected the design and manufacture: they are faster, more seaworthy, and capable of carrying bigger loads of drugs than earlier models. A convert|60|ft|m long narco submarine can reach speeds of 11 miles per hour and carry up to 10 tons of cocaine. They are typically made of fiberglass, powered by a 300/350 hp diesel engine and manned by a crew of four. With enough cargo space to carry two to ten tons of cocaine, they also carry large fuel tanks, giving them a range of 2,000 miles (3,200 Km). Because much of its structure is fiberglass and it travels nearly below the sea surface, the vessel is virtually impossible to detect via sonar or radar. Narco submarines also have an upper lead shielding to minimize their 'heat signature' and throw off infrared sensors. In most cases, this means enforcement agencies must spot them from the air, though they are painted blue and produce almost no wake. Even here, the traffickers alter their methods, travelling slowly during the day so their wake is small. They also have ballast tanks to alter the vessel's buoyancy and are equiped with satellite global positioning system to aid navigation. Experts estimate 25 to 40 semi-subs departed South America in 2007 laden with cocaine, and they expected that figure would double in 2008. [ [ Narco subs pose new challenge for US coast guards] ] There is no head and the operating space is cramped. The craft have ventilation systems though with the engine rumbling just two feet away, naval engineers theorize the heat must be nearly unbearable; however the crew is motivated by profit.

Routes and seizures

The western Colombian shore topography is near ideal for transporting the cocaine produced in clandestine laboratories in nearby Nariño state. About a third of the 600 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year, leaves via the Pacific coast and a significant amount is being carried in semi-submersibles. [ [ The War In The Pacific] ] 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. [ [ Subs become the drug transport of choice] ] 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. [ [ Coast Guard hunts drug-running semi-subs] ] For traffickers, reaching the U.S.A., is well worth the trouble as a 10-ton load can fetch nearly $200 million USD wholesale. Fishermen hired specifically for the task are often at the controls, and those who complete the trip successfully are paid more than $100,000 USD (€64,000). [ [,1518,562603,00.html Undersea Trafficking] ]

Smugglers normally unload their cargo onto fast power boats for the final leg to shore and the semi-submersible is scuttled. None has been sighted unloading at North American ports or beaches. In 2006, a 10 meter 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. [ [ Spanish police find drug sub] ] In March of 2006, the Calabrian mafia ('Ndrangheta) ordered a shipment of 10 tons 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. [ [ Drug cops foil mafia plot to smuggle $870m of cocaine by submarine] ]

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 14 years combined, but arrests are rare. [ [ Drug Traffic Beneath the Waves] ] When clandestine shipyards have been discovered, the workmen have escaped into the jungle. In some instances, the semi-subs are towed behind other vessels and are scuttled if they are 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 along with the U.S. Navy have detected 42 drug subs headed north towards the United States and off the coast of Central America, [ [ Drug Subs] ] but they are rarely seized. The service estimates that 85 individual events will bring in about 340 tons of cocaine by the end of 2008. [ [ Legislation targets drug-smuggling subs] ] The U.S. Coast Guard is currently adjusting its underwater acoustic sensors to 'listen' a narco sub's engine over a large distance. [ [ Run Silent, Run Drugs: The Cocaine Sub Fleet] ]

On July 16, 2008, the Mexican Navy intercepted a convert|10|m|ft long narco submarine travelling about convert|200|km|mi off the southwest of Oaxaca, Mexico; in a daring raid, Mexican Navy Special Forces rappelled from a helicopter on to the deck of the narco submarine and arrested four smugglers before they could scuttle their vessel. The vessel was found to be loaded with 5.8 tons of cocaine and was towed to Huatulco, Oaxaca by a Mexican Navy patrol boat. [ [ Secretaría de Marina - Noticias] ] [ [ Reuters -Mexico captures submarine loaded with drugs] ] [ [ The Narco Submarine] ] [ [ Mexican navy seizes cocaine sub] ] [ [ Drug cartels using submarines to smuggle cocaine] ]

On September 12, 2008 the U.S. Coast Guard captured a semi-submersible about convert|563|km|mi west of Guatemala; it was carrying seven tons of cocaine. [cite news | first= | last= | coauthors= | title=Coast Guard seizes $8.4 million worth of cocaine | date=September 14, 2008 | publisher= | url = | work =CNN News | pages = | accessdate = 2008-09-15 | language = ] [cite news | first=ELAINE SILVESTRINI | last= | coauthors= | title=Drug-Toting Semi-Sub Nabbed In Tampa-Based Probe | date=Sep. 13, 2008 | publisher= | url = | work =The Tampa Tribune | pages = | accessdate = 2008-09-15 | language = ] The convert|18|m|ft long, steel and fiberglass craft was detected by a U.S. Navy aircraft as part of Operation Panama Express and was intercepted by two speedboats launched from the USS McInerney. Five days later, a 60-feet semi-submersible was seized by the Coast Guard cutter Midgett about convert|322|km|mi south of Guatemala. [cite news | first=Jeanne | last=Meserve | coauthors= | title=Cocaine smugglers turn to submarines, feds say | date=September 19, 2008 | publisher= | url = | work =CNN News | pages = | accessdate = 2008-09-20 | language = ] [Videos and images of these two seisures are available at the U.S. Coast Guard web site: [] ]


When semi-submersibles have been stopped at sea, their crew usually scuttle them, sending boat and cocaine to the bottom. With no evidence of trafficking against them and in accordance with maritime law, the crew must be rescued and, lacking of evidence of wrongdoing, released without criminal charges.

To address this legal loophole, the U.S. Coast Guard is working with Congress and introduced a proposed bill on June 28, 2008 to make it illegal to be aboard an unflagged semi-submersible, regardless of seizure of narcotics inside their scuttled vessel. The bill will make it a “felony for those who knowingly or intentionally operate or embark in a 'self-propelled semi-submersible' (SPSS) that is without nationality and that is or has navigated in international waters, with the intent to evade detection.” [ [ NavyTimes] ] The bill will not impact researchers, explorers or others who may be operating a semi-submersible, assuming that the vessel is flagged. The House already approved its version of the bill July 29, 2008.
If this new legislation is approved, the crime would carry a 20-year prison term. [ [ S.3351: A bill to enhance drug submarine trafficking interdiction] ]

See also

* Cali Cartel
* Illegal drug trade
* Medellín Cartel
* Mérida Initiative
* Mexican Drug War
* Narcotrafficking in Colombia
* Norte del Valle Cartel
* North Coast Cartel
* Plan Colombia
* Prohibition (drugs)


External links

* [ Hunting drug trafficking submarines]
* [ Colombian traffickers moving drugs in submarines]
* [ US Coast Guard intercepts drug running submarine]
* [ Rep Poe Worried About Drug Running Submarines]

;Photo gallery:
* [ Drug cartels; secret weapon]

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