Congress Torpedoes Drug Submarines Carrying Cocaine From Colombia

New legislation would allow the Coast Guard to go after unflagged vessels.

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Drug smugglers who ship tons of cocaine in on handmade subs are about to get the U.S. Coast Guard treatment. Because of a loophole in U.S. maritime law, the orange navy can't stop unflagged ships in international waters, meaning that these little subs and semisubmersibles can float legally right up to our waters. But new legislation OK'd this week in the House and set for consideration in the Senate will let federal authorities stop unflagged vessels in international waters. It's an antiterrorism and antidrug issue that came to Washington's attention when handmade drug subs loaded with 12 tons of coke started showing up. From 2001 to 2007, 23 incidents involving the vessels occurred. This year, there have been 29, and the Coast Guard speculates that the vessels are responsible for moving 32 percent of all cocaine between Colombia and the United States. Leading the effort to change the laws is New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. "Too many unregistered ships bring illegal drugs to our shores and our neighborhoods," he tells us. "Our bill will close this loophole and help prevent the overseas trafficking of illegal drugs, weapons, and other dangerous contraband." The guts of the legislation, according to Lautenberg's office, are this:

Applies Only to Unregistered SPSS Vessels

Most ships traveling between multiple countries are registered to a single country (called a " flag state " ), and fly that country's flag. When traveling international waters, these ships then exercise a right called "exclusive flag state jurisdiction," which means they are protected from interference— like boarding, search and seizure, or arrest— from authorities of any country except for their flag state.

However, an unregistered vessel operating in international waters is subject to the jurisdiction of the nation in whose waters it is located.

Lautenberg Bill

The Lautenberg bill would define what is considered a submersible or semi-submersible vessel without nationality and would prohibit individuals from operating such a ship. It would also designate their operation as a threat to national security and allow the Coast Guard or other federal authorities to interdict and arrest persons using, navigating, or operating these unregistered ships.