Watch the U.S. Coast Guard Take Down This Narco Sub

Capture highlights drug trafficking under the Pacific surface


With pistols drawn, members of the U.S. Coast Guard approached an odd-looking vessel sitting in the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. After pulling alongside, the Coast Guardsmen from the cutter USCGC Bertholf jumped aboard what turned out to be a drug-running submarine.

During the bust on March 3, the Coast Guard seized nearly 13,000 pounds of cocaine and arrested four suspected smugglers in international waters approximately 300 miles southwest of Panama. The narcotics have a street value of some $200 million, according to official press releases.

While most of drug traffic flows overland through South and Central America, drug cartels have been using submarines to try and dodge security measures for more than two decades. And traffickers are now increasingly looking to the larger and potentially less-policed Pacific over more traditional routes.

In July 2012, a Pentagon-led task force reported that shipments of cocaine through the Caribbean Sea appeared to drop in the first six months of that year, while trafficking in the Pacific rose 55 percent in the same period. In December 2013, a Mexican border agent said that smuggling along the Pacific coastline had gone up 73 percent in the previous four years as cartels moved away from land-based methods, according to a report from the Mexican news website Animal Politico.

“This jump in drug smuggling along the Pacific coast is likely another, but much less reported, example of the so-called ‘balloon effect,’” InSight Crime added at the time. “Cutting production or a supply line in one location merely leads to production or trafficking to spring up in another.”

From Mexico, the pathways included connections between Baja California Sur and Tijuana to cities in coastal communities in California like Pisma Beach, Long Beach and Oceanside. From there, cartels could move the drugs inland and disperse them to dealers across the country.

“Eastern Pacific flow currently accounts for more than 68 percent of documented cocaine movement,” U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, the Pentagon’s top officer in charge of operations in Latin America, told senators during a hearing on March 10.

Above - a P-3 Long Range Tracker patrol plane. Customs and Border Protection photo. At top - Coast Guardsmen on top of the narco sub. Coast Guard capture.
Above — a P-3 Long Range Tracker patrol plane. Customs and Border Protection photo. At top — Coast Guardsmen on top of the narco sub. Coast Guard capture

And the narco subs are now part of the trend. Built in places as spartan as jungle workshops, the boats come in two basic styles. Some can submerge entirely beneath the waves, while others are designed so that only a small portion juts out above the water.

Between the small size and low profile of the boats, traffickers can evade certain sensors and the human eye, especially at night. Both designs produce a less obvious wake than traditional high-powered speed boats — commonly known as “go-fasts” or “cigar boats” — that smugglers have favored in the past.

“Enormous profits allow criminal networks to acquire capabilities that rival or even exceed those of the states that battle them, including high-powered rifles and machine guns, transport planes and long-range submersibles,” Tidd added in his testimony.

But the features don’t make the craft invisible. Fitted with powerful cameras and radars, a P-3 Long Range Tracker patrol plane from U.S. Customs and Border Protection spotted the craft and relayed the information to the cutter. The Pentagon also routinely sends surveillance planes to help find suspicious boats.

And since the homemade submarines are slow, go-fasts remain popular. By 2015, cartels had added new, improved speed boats called Picudas, named after a tropical fish, to their fleets. On March 25, the Coast Guard helicopter tailed a four-engine boat as suspects dumped packages of cocaine into the Pacific off Panama.

Of course, finding the craft is only one part of mission. Since the submarines are either mostly or completely submerged, the Coast Guard and other agencies are blind to how many people are on board … or if they have any guns or explosives.

“SPSS interdictions are inherently dangerous,” Capt. Laura Collins of the Bertholf explained in the official statement, using the acronym for “self-propelled semi-submersible.” In March, the boarding party found a loaded gun aboard along with the drugs.

Since July 2015, the Coast Guard has boarded five narco subs, including the March seizure. This was the second such operation for Bertholf. In January, the cutter Northland stopped another submarine in the Pacific, nearly 300 miles southwest of the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Despite this pressure, drug traffickers are not likely to give up other smuggling routes or specialized tools any time soon. Along with cigar boats and cross-border tunnels, narco subs are most likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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