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Coast Guard Seeing Surge in Use of Drug Submarines

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Sylvia Longmire IHSBy Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Drug smugglers are known for their ingenuity when they explore different ways to move narcotics under the noses of law enforcement authorities. They are also looking for efficiency, and a few transport methods offer the combination of volume and stealth that drug submarines provide.

Formally known as self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS), their use – or at least their discovery – seemed to have declined in 2016. However, a spike in drug submarine detections and seizures in 2017 is leading the Coast Guard to believe drug traffickers are relying more on these vessels once again.

Coast Guard Has Captured Seven Drug Smuggling Vessels since June 2017

According to Coast Guard News, the Coast Guard has interdicted seven low-profile drug smuggling vessels just since June 2017, resulting in the seizure of more than 22,850 pounds of cocaine worth over $306 million. Per the Coast Guard and Department of Justice, a record $6 billion dollars in drugs have been intercepted so far in 2017 and nearly 600 suspected traffickers were arrested and turned over to federal authorities for prosecution, ABC News reported.

In just one interdiction on September 20, the Coast Guard offloaded 50,550 pounds of cocaine and heroin worth an estimated $679.3 million in San Diego, CA. That offload was the result of 25 separate seizures conducted by four Coast Guard cutters and a Navy ship, which began on August 2, 2017.

Finding Drug Submarines Is Difficult for Law Enforcement

Drug submarines are tricky to find and even trickier to seize. Many are constructed in the jungles of Colombia, with varying degrees of size and sophistication.

These submarines are slow and bare-bones, and they make for an extremely uncomfortable journey. They don’t fully submerge, and their builders have to find a compromise between ventilation and stealth.

Any space taken up in the interior for the comfort of the sparse crew is room that could be used for profitable contraband, so sleep and toileting needs are not a priority. Transporting loads up to several tons of narcotics in these vessels is very profitable for those chosen to accompany them.

Smuggling Continues to Keep the Coast Guard Busy

More than 455,034 pounds of cocaine, worth over $6.1 billion, has been intercepted by the Coast Guard in fiscal year 2017, which topped the 2016 record of 443,000 pounds. Nearly 600 suspected smugglers were apprehended by the Coast Guard and turned over to federal authorities for prosecution in the U.S. during the year. That’s up from 465 suspects in 2016 and 373 in fiscal year 2015, according to ABC News.

The last low-profile vessel interdiction prior to fiscal year 2017 was by Cutter Seneca from Boston on May 26, 2016. Coast Guard News indicated that all low-profile vessel interdictions by Coast Guard forces have occurred in known drug transit zones in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central and South America. Seven different Coast Guard cutters have contributed to these interdictions.

Trump’s Emphasis on Protecting Land Borders Causing Shift to Maritime Smuggling Routes

Given that President Donald Trump has been doubling down on the need to vigorously reinforce the Southwest land border, it should come as no surprise that drug smugglers are adapting by focusing more on maritime smuggling routes. However, the Coast Guard is experiencing unprecedented cuts to its drug interdiction budget.

Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft said that while the Coast Guard is “getting better” at intercepting these drug boats, there is also [an] increase in cultivation and production, particularly in Colombia. “Last year, we had 60,000 fatalities due to drug usage [in the U.S.] and that number will only go up next year,” said Zukunft, while making the case for the need for a bigger Coast Guard.

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