Narco Submarines Give Coast Guard A Run For Their Money

By Keri Blakinger 10/15/18

The DEA estimates that 30 to 40% of narcotics coming into the country are hauled on the homemade submarines.

us coast guard boat

Narco subs seem to be on the rise as a stealthy method of smuggling drugs, a shift that comes amid booming cocaine production in the South American country most known for it.

In the first nine months of 2018, the Colombian navy caught 14 drug-hauling vessels, three times as many as they intercepted the year before according to Business Insider.

In 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard offered similar observations, reporting a “resurgence” in low-profile vessels like submarines.

But those captures likely represent only a small fraction of the drug-laden subs headed stateside, according to the online news outlet. The DEA estimated that 30 to 40% of narcotics coming into the country are hauled on the homemade submarines—and authorities are probably only catching 5% of them, Insider reported.

The shift comes amid a boom in the coke-making industry in Colombia, where there is now more land dedicated to coca-growing than ever before in the nation’s history, according to the New York Times

“It’s a curve that’s permanently going up and hasn’t reached its inflection point,” Colombian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, told reporters this year. 

The first time U.S. authorities snagged a drug-running sub wasn’t until 2006, when law enforcement intercepted a homemade vessel hauling 3 tons of blow near Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. 

Five years later, American authorities encountered their first stealth sub on the other side of the isthmus, in the Caribbean. Though the traffickers tried scuttling the vessel to ditch the load, authorities ultimately recovered 14,000 pounds of coke from the craft. 

Since then, Colombian crime rings have pumped out an estimated 100 drug subs per year, launching them in the country’s rivers where there is relatively little policing to stop them. And, as the blow industry continues booming, traffickers have more and more money to pour into making sure their underwater vessels are ever more sophisticated and able to escape detection. 

But the recent uptick in intercepted subs may not mean that there’s more of them. Coast Guard officials told Business Insider that’s actually a sign of anti-trafficking success. Yet, Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA, chalked it up to the sheer volume of drug trafficking on the high seas. 

"They may be capturing more,” he said, “but again, that's because there's a hell of a lot more being using to smuggle drugs.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.