The Business of Cocaine and How Semi-Submersible Vessels Threaten the Detection of Drug Smugglers
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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Supply is driven by demand. As long as there is a demand for cocaine, traffickers will continue to seek out innovative, dangerous and costly ways of delivering it.
South America is the leader in cocaine production. South America is a prime location for the production of cocaine in countries such as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, because the coca plant grows naturally there. It can be produced in quantities that result in large amounts of refined cocaine.
How Cocaine Is Made
There are several ways to manufacture cocaine. South American farmers harvest coca leaves, which are soaked in alkaline liquids and extracted with kerosene in metal containers. Further into production, sulfuric acid is used to extract the dissolved cocaine, creating a liquid solution in the form of coca paste.
To reduce impurities in the coca paste, sulfuric acid and potassium permanganate are used along with other chemicals to separate the base. The resulting product is filtered and dried to create a dry, solid white powder.
How Cocaine Is Transported to the United States
Once the cocaine is refined and ready for distribution, decentralized cartels and industry stakeholders work to transport the drug out of Colombia and elsewhere undetected. According the Drug Enforcement Administration, around 93 percent of the cocaine delivered to the United States arrives by sea from Mexico and Central America. It is commonly smuggled into the United States through the southwest border.
Use of Self-Propelled, Semi-Submersible Vessels A Rising Trend in Cocaine Smuggling
An increasing trend in cocaine transportation involves the use of self-propelled semi-submersible vessels traveling from Colombia to Central America and Mexico. Because the majority of these semi-submersible vessels sit below the waterline with only the top portion above the water, they are able to maintain a low profile.
This also reduces the radar echo commonly associated with vessels upon the high seas. As a result, detection of these smuggling vessels is more difficult.
Semi-Submersible Vessels Usually Built Near Cocaine Production Plants
These vessels are commonly built in remote areas, such as the Tumaco region of Colombia’s Pacific coast. They are often made under the canopy of vegetation within jungle coastal areas, which offer smugglers an additional advantage. The semi-submersibles are often close to cocaine production laboratories within jungles.
Once constructed, these vessels can carry over six tons of cocaine. These types of vessels have been in existence since the 1990s. They can include fully submersible vessels or semi-submersible vessels. There are also submersible devices that can be towed underwater, which further reduces the risk of detection.
Challenges of Detecting Semi-Submersibles Carrying Cocaine
Semi-submersible vessels with cocaine are often towed by fishing boats. These boats blend in with legitimate boating traffic and can detach the submersible if law enforcement stops the boat’s operator.
Another challenge associated with these vessels is the risk of being driven and controlled remotely. If traffickers master the technology to remotely operate these vessels, it will be more difficult for law enforcement to hold traffickers accountable when the Coast Guard seizes these semi-submersibles.
Self-propelled, semi-submersible vessels have definitely created an emerging challenge for law enforcement. To address this threat, the Coast Guard continues to be at the forefront of maritime interdictions. In 2017, the Coast Guard had a record year for cocaine seizures through the interdiction with 455,000 pounds of cocaine worth over $6 billion dollars.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been with the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security, contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has also received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions.