The typical drug submarine begins its life in the jungle areas of Colombia. Often in areas of the country under the control of leftist rebels, drug smugglers may toil for more than a year creating the fiberglass and steel frame, retrofitting engine parts, and packing nearly every inch of cargo space inside the ersatz sub with 5 metric tons of cocaine.
Under the cover of darkness, a crew of three or four men pilots the ship downriver until it reaches the open ocean. Steaming out to sea and riding only a few inches above the waves, they head toward their destination, most commonly in Mexico, a way station en route to the United States. Their cargo, if it reaches here, can be worth as much as $350 million at street prices.
If things do not go well for the narco-mariners, they are spotted by American or other authorities operating in international waters. Forced to heave to, the crewmen activate a hidden scuttling mechanism and jump into the water, watching as their ship and its valuable cargo sink. Brought aboard a law enforcement vessel, the men plead innocence and, with the evidence gone, are eventually returned to their native country and set free.
The U.S. Coast Guard has pressed Congress to end what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free strategy by drug traffickers. In response, the House this week passed legislation to give U.S. authorities power to jail narco-mariners for operating a "stateless" ship, even when operating in international waters. The Senate is expected to act shortly. The new law would give federal prosecutors the ability to charge drug suspects with a crime in U.S. courts even if they are able to ditch their valuable drug cargo at sea.
The vessels are not true submarines but are what are called "semisubmersibles." They are designed to make a one-way trip to deliver their cargoes, most often to a transit point along the Mexican coast or the beaches of a Caribbean island. The Coast Guard says there are no instances of these semisubmersibles reaching U.S. shores. However, the vessels are carrying a growing share of the world's drugs, particularly cocaine destined for the United States and elsewhere.
The submarine scenario has played out with increasing frequency, according to the Coast Guard. Between 2001 and 2007, there were 23 encounters with semisubmersibles believed to be used by drug traffickers. In the first six months of this year, there were 45 such encounters..
In February, a U.S. Navy warship working with the Coast Guard caught a semisubmersible 80 miles west of Buenaventura, Colombia. When sailors attempted to seize the sub, the crew scuttled her. Coast Guard members were able to salvage one bale of drugs as evidence. A month later, a semisubmersible was spotted 375 miles from the Galapagos Islands, west of Colombia. Hailed to heave to, the crew sent the ship and any evidence to the bottom of the sea. And in July, a Mexican Navy ship arrested four men operating a 30-foot semisubmersible packed with cocaine.
The Coast Guard attributes an overall drop in drug seizures to the increase in semisubmersible transport. "The dramatic rise of difficult-to-detect [semisubmersibles] that sink themselves when law enforcement approaches is a significant factor contributing to decreased removal and seizure rates in 2008 when compared with 2007," according to a Coast Guard report.
The Coast Guard turned to Congress to make it possible to prosecute crews even when they succeed in scuttling their vessels. Naval authorities already can stop or seize the subs, which are regarded as unregistered "stateless" ships, but have problems prosecuting crew members if they manage to sink their cargo.
Now, Congress is working to make it a violation of U.S. law to operate a semisubmersible without registering it in a home country. That would provide very broad new legal authority. "It's too easy to send evidence to the bottom of the ocean, so hopefully this law will shift the balance back to law enforcement and allow traffickers to be prosecuted," says Lt. Cmdr. Christopher O'Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman.