Das Boot, Colombian Drug Smuggler Edition

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 6/30/2008 01:06:00 AM
Der Spiegel has an interesting article and interview on the Colombian drug cartels' latest mode of drug smuggling transportation to North America--the submarine. The UN International Drug Control Programme pegs the illicit trade as a $400B annual industry, so it's not surprising that some of the most enterprising ideas have come from smugglers attempting to overcome those who would intercept them. There is always a race in the technological sophistication of peddlers and enforcers. As in any global industry of note, things do not often stand still. Not that they always work, but certainly, there have been some very creative means of getting the goods across borders into the Land of the Free. Who knows, maybe they'll make a sequel to the famous German submarine flick Das Boot. You guessed it--Das Bong! John Leguizamo should be in the lead role as a kamikaze cocaine sub captain:

Small, homemade submarines have become the preferred means of transport for the Colombian drug cartels -- and a completely new challenge for the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS), a group consisting of members of the United States Navy, Coast Guard, CIA and drug control agents from 12 other countries.

The boats, made of plastic or steel, can carry up to 10 tons of cocaine each. Because they cannot submerge completely, the correct term for the boats is semi-submersibles. They are used primarily on the drug trafficking routes between Colombia and Guatemala or Mexico. The cartels have devised a complete logistics system, with fishing boats stationed along the way to warn the crews against patrols and provide them with food and water.

The drug boats have to be piloted almost blindly. They sit low in the water, and the crews rely on a type of GPS system used by yachts for navigation. The smugglers spend up to two weeks at sea. They move slowly during the day to avoid creating the telltale wake. But under cover of darkness, they crawl northward at six knots. In 2006, the vessels are believed to have carried between 500 and 700 tons of cocaine from South America toward the United States. About two-thirds of the drugs reached the United States along a western route in the Pacific, while the rest passed through the Caribbean. The number of submersibles is on the rise.

The drug cartels' new mode of transport is a serious threat, says Rear Admiral Joseph Nimmich (read the full interview with Nimmich here (more...)), the director of the JIATFS, which is headquartered in Key West at the southern tip of Florida. Even senior US military officials are concerned. "The crooks are faster than we are," admits Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Putting a stop to this new threat is a central objective of the Armed Forces, and they are working hard at it."

The tough battle between drug cartels and investigators has always been a race to acquire the most effective technical innovations. In the past, the Colombians used small aircraft, but drug agents soon managed to gain the upper hand. Fishing trawlers were the next vessels of choice, but today these cutters are required to be outfitted with homing devices so that their locations can be carefully monitored. Finally, the cartels began using speedboats that were often fast enough to escape during chases. The Navy's response was to use helicopters to fire at the speedboats' engines. So now the traffickers are using submarines.