FLORIDA, USA, Friday September 14, 2012 — Law enforcement officials fighting the war against illegal drugs are facing a new challenge as narcotics organizations bankroll machine shops operating under the dense cover of South American jungles to build increasingly high-tech diesel-powered submarines.
American authorities have recently discovered at least three models of a new and sophisticated drug-trafficking submarine capable of travelling completely underwater from South America to the United States, and the use of these covert vessels has spiked in the Caribbean over the last year.
Older models pressed into service by drug barons were only semi-submersible, requiring a snorkel for air intake, but three newer captured vessels were fully submersible, capable of hauling 10 tons of cocaine and, by surfacing at night to charge their batteries, could sail beneath the surface from Ecuador to Los Angeles.
American officials now fear that the trafficking networks are shifting from so-called fast boats, the high-powered surface craft that can carry about a ton of cocaine and are easier to spot, in favour of semi-submersible and fully submersible vessels that can covertly transport many more tons of drugs, which are unloaded in shallow waters or transported to shore by small boats.
Another concern for American officials is the possibility that these high-tech long-range vessels could be used by terrorists to transport attackers or weapons. They nevertheless emphasize that no use of submersibles by militants has been detected.
Illegal drug networks were traditionally organized to combine the tasks of production, transportation and distribution, and there has been little reason to cooperate with terrorists. These new advanced submarines are nevertheless sometimes built by independent contractors who may be more willing to sell their products to anyone offering the right price.
“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,” according to Cmdr Mark J Fedor of the US Coast Guard, who commands the cutter Mohawk, a 200-foot vessel whose fast boat and helicopter interdicted a submersible in the Caribbean last September.
As well as the Coast Guard ships and aircraft patrolling the seas, the American counternarcotics effort includes a sophisticated command centre that combines intelligence from across the United States and from nations in the region that are increasingly cooperating to battle cocaine trafficking.
The around-the-clock mission to sort and analyze intelligence on drug trafficking and then coordinate the response takes place behind the walls of an interagency task force in Key West.
Inside the command centre, officially known as Joint Interagency Task Force-South, the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, State and Defence are joined by intelligence agencies and liaison officers from more than a dozen nations to analyze information on drug trafficking. The 600-person task force is in charge of cuing ships, aircraft and counternarcotics units on the ground for interdiction missions up and down the hemisphere.
Rear Admiral Charles D Michel of the Coast Guard, the task force’s commander, said that drug interdictions for 2012 are already up more than 50 percent from a year ago. He attributed that to a counternarcotics coalition assembled at Key West that is trying innovative and aggressive measures to cut off drug traffickers leaving South America.”
“Operation Martillo”, the current mission, focuses on setting up interdiction “boxes” in two zones off the coast of South America where the drugs start their voyage, and two more just offshore of the favoured trans-shipment points in Honduras and Guatemala, where the drugs are divided up into smaller shipments and harder to track.
The admiral said that while the task force consists mostly of Americans, the end game is “getting to prosecution,” which requires working “by, with and through the local partners” in Central and South America.
Last year, interdiction missions coordinated by the joint task force captured 129 tons of cocaine en route to the United States — more than five times the cocaine seized over the same period by operations in the United States, where agents and officers stopped about 24 tons of the drug.
Despite these advances, three-quarters of potential drug shipments identified by the task force are not interdicted, simply because there are not enough ships and aircraft available for the missions. “My staff watches multi-ton loads go by,” Admiral Michel said.