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Narco-Subs: The Next Generation

New, totally submersible "drug submarines" are getting faster, more technologically advanced—and much harder to spot.

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A drug sub crew abandoning ship. Photo via

By Hunter R. Slaton

09/10/12

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Using “drug subs” to smuggle blow from South America to the US is a relatively new innovation from traffickers—and these handmade vessels are only getting more advanced and speedier, not to mention harder to detect. Previously most drug subs were semi-submersibles, which had to float just below the waterline in order to provide air (through a snorkel) for their diesel engines, and which had a max range of about 3,000 miles. But, according to the New York Times, new models—including three interdicted recently by the US Coast Guard—are capable of staying totally underwater (except for surfacing nightly to recharge batteries) for the entire trip from, say, Ecuador to Los Angeles, or nearly 4,400 miles. Drug subs first began to been seen in the 1990s in the Eastern Pacific, but now are pushing into new territories, specifically the Caribbean trade routes previously dominated by the “fast boats” of a previous era of narcotics shipping.

Sub-hunters in the Coast Guard and US intelligence continue to do their work—despite the fact that three-quarters of possible drug cargo is allowed to proceed unmolested, due to the lack of anywhere near enough aircraft and ships to track and intercept shipments. But ever-improving drug-sub technology is raising another concern: US officials are worried about the potential use of these types of drug subs by terrorists, although this has yet to be seen. Coast Guard Commander Mark Fedor tells the Times, “These vessels are seaworthy enough that I have no doubt in my mind that if they had enough fuel, they could easily sail into a port in the United States.”


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