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Drug War's Rough Waters

THE GLOW OF the second illumination flare still hung in the night as Petty Officer First Class Pedro Lucena and two members of his boarding party jumped on board the nearly submerged vessel, which the U.S. Coast Guard believed was being used to smuggle cocaine into the United States. The Coast Guard boarding officer and his two shipmates began banging on the hatches and windows of the vessel, ordering it to stop. The flat top rocked back and forth as the pilot within propelled the vessel at 12 mph through the Eastern Pacific Ocean in an effort to throw the Coast Guardsmen perched above into the dark waters below.

The hatch suddenly opened and hands appeared signaling surrender, but not before the crew opened the scuttling valve allowing the waters of the Pacific Ocean to rush in. Their goal was to have the vessel go down as they departed, taking with it the evidence against them: 7 metric tons of cocaine that was hidden in the hull, with a street value of $187 million. But Lucena wasn’t about to let this prize sink into the deep. Weapon drawn, he ordered the men to close the scuttling valve, and they did.

The surprise attack had worked, which was no small feat. It represented only the second successful capture by the Coast Guard of a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS), a highly maneuverable, fast, and hard-to-track watercraft that is increasingly used by drug smugglers.

Nobody knows how many times SPSSs have been used to smuggle drugs into the United States between their first sighting in 1993 and today, says Lt. Cmdr. Brian W. Robinson, chief of the Coast Guard’s Operations Law Group. The recent upsurge in encounters, however, has been dramatic.

From 2001 to 2006, there were 23 confirmed SPSS incidents. That’s an average of fewer than five per year. That number had jumped to 42 incidents in one year by 2007, and sightings nearly doubled in 2008, rising to 77.

Another way to look at the size of the problem is that in 2006, the Consolidated Counterdrug Database, maintained by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, estimated that only 1 percent of all cocaine smuggled via the water routes smugglers use in the Western Hemisphere was packed inside an SPSS. By 2007, that estimate had jumped to 16 percent.

“The projections for 2009 are much higher,” Robinson says, without getting specific.

Drug cartels’ use of SPSSs and the United States’ response efforts, discussed ahead, exemplify the unending cat-and-mouse nature of the drug wars. The SPSS issue sheds light on the larger narcotrafficking challenge and illustrates how difficult it is to assess who’s winning on the battlefield.

Emerging Trend

Although SPSSs have been around more than a decade and a half, they were not a popular method of conveyance for drug running initially. Originally, Colombian narcotraffickers relied on fishing vessels or “go-fast” speedboats to smuggle drugs, mostly cocaine but heroin and marijuana as well, into the United States. However, the Colombian government’s improved vessel registration and tracking systems, along with better cooperation and collaboration with the United States, has forced narcotraffickers to innovate.

Increasingly, their choice has been the SPSS, Coast Guard Cmdr. Timothy J. Espinoza told maritime security stakeholders at the 2008 Maritime Security Expo in Long Beach, California, last November. Espinoza is the head of Tactical Law Enforcement Team South (TACLET South), a deployable specialized maritime force stationed in Miami. He and his men have increasingly run into semi-submersibles since their first encounter in 2006.

According to the State Department’s 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), SPSSs are estimated to have hauled 423 metric tons of cocaine in 2008. Of that combined load, it is estimated that only 71 metric tons were prevented from getting to the market. Coast Guard interdictions accounted for 56.3 metric tons of that total.

Drug trafficking organizations use Colombia’s dense canopy, swamps, and mangroves to build SPSSs near river basins connected to the sea. The tough topography helps shield the shipyards from aerial surveillance. For added protection, most SPSSs are built in areas controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the communist insurgency waging war against the Colombian state since the mid-1960s. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that 70 percent of Colombia’s cocaine comes from these areas.

Built for Stealth

An SPSS is basically a motor-propelled, flat-decked vessel with a pilothouse that rises only about 18 inches above the waterline. It has often been described as a cross between a submarine and a cigar boat.

Over time, the builders of these vessels have developed variations, according to Espinoza. Early in their genesis, SPSSs were made of wood and fiberglass. Today, many are constructed of steel hulls, armed with modern electronics to avoid detection and GPS navigation systems to avoid the need for external communications that authorities can home in on. Pilothouses, like shark fins, remain above the water line for navigation but continue to be built closer to the waterline to decrease the chances of being spotted.

SPSSs range from as small as 30 feet to as large as 80 feet. They can carry anywhere from 4 to 12 metric tons of cocaine in a single load and can go up to 12 mph, traveling up to 2,000 miles without refueling, says Espinoza.

SPSSs are built for stealth and typically travel during the night to make interdiction nearly impossible. “Even when you’re right on top of them,” Espinoza says, “they’re hard to detect.” And detection will only prove harder, government officials believe, as narcotraffickers move from manned semi-submersibles to remote-controlled submersibles.

Threat Assessment

SPSSs are believed to operate predominantly in the Eastern Pacific, one of the three routes within the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone (WHTZ)—the area identified as being used to move cocaine into the United States. The Eastern Pacific accounted for 68 percent of all cocaine moving through the WHTZ in 2007, and SPSSs carried a greater portion of the load than before. SPSSs are rarely detected in the Western or Central Caribbean, the other two transit routes in the WHTZ. But the true numbers are hard to pin down.

What makes it difficult to determine the number of SPSSs isn’t just their stealth, it’s also the drug traffickers’ “one and done” policy. All evidence points to SPSS crews scuttling their vessels after each drop-off, which typically occurs at sea after a rendezvous with a Mexican drug trafficking vessel, says Espinoza. After loading their cargo onto the ship, the crew sinks the SPSS, boards the ship, and both are taken somewhere along Mexico’s western coast.

From there, Espinoza says, the traffickers use land routes through Mexico to smuggle the drugs into the United States while the SPSS crew travels home to Colombia. Ninety percent of all cocaine consumed in the United States transits through Mexico, according to estimates cited by the State Department’s 2009 INCSR.

Economics. Drug lords can afford to pay the four-to-five member crews $100,000 each per trip and sink the one-way craft, which costs up to $2 million to build, because the value of the cargo can exceed $100 million. And by having the crew fly back to Colombia, the narcotraffickers can have them begin another run long before they would have returned via an SPSS voyage, which could take two weeks. The one-way trips also slash in half the opportunity for Central American, Colombian, Mexican, or U.S. government maritime law enforcement personnel to interdict an SPSS.

Cargo questions. The biggest fear associated with SPSSs is that their cargo isn’t limited to drugs. “If they can smuggle drugs, what else can they smuggle?” asks Rusty Payne, DEA spokesman. The hypotheticals include illegal immigrants, guns, terrorists, and the most terrifying of all: weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

When asked if fears of a semi-submersible smuggling WMDs into the United States are legitimate, a U.S. counternarcotics official who wished to remain anonymous told Security Management that “one of these things is as big as your bedroom or bigger, and it can go largely undetected all the way to the U.S.” He added, “You have to connect the dots, but they can put whatever they want in there.”


As noted, there have been only two successful captures of SPSSs. The first successful seizure occurred in November 2006, when a Coast Guard cutter nabbed an SPSS they dubbed Big Foot. The Coast Guard found four metric tons of cocaine inside its hull. The second incident was when Luceno and his men of TACLET South made their nighttime boarding on September 13, 2008.

There have, however, been other incidents where vessels were not captured but where the smuggling was successfully interrupted—or interdicted. That has occurred 10 times since November 2006. Including the seizures and the interdictions, the USCG estimates that it prevented more than $2 billion worth of illicit drugs from entering the United States.

Most interdictions occur when a U.S. Coast Guard’s routine patrol aircraft spots an SPSS cruising just below the waves and radios for assistance. Typically, the Coast Guard’s TACLET South then attempts to interdict the SPSS as part of its counternarcotics mission.

Burying the evidence. Seizures have been rare, because when the SPSS crew realizes that it has been detected by an aircraft or Coast Guard vessel, the crew immediately scuttles the vessel and jumps into the sea, allowing the evidence to plunge to the sea floor with the craft. Traffickers pack the illicit cargo in a forward compartment so that it will not float to the surface as the vessel sinks.

From the moment the crew begins to scuttle, the SPSS will take 10 to 15 minutes to sink. Most of the time, the vessel has been taking in water long before authorities arrive, making it too dangerous to board. Any boarding officer caught inside the hull when the SPSS sank could get trapped and drown.

Evidence recovery attempts aren’t an option in such deep waters. “The depth of water is so great that it would take something on the magnitude of Navy sub salvage to get down there and retrieve that thing,” says Espinoza.

“SPSSs are perfect evidence-destruction machines,” says Robinson. “They go down like a rock,” taking the evidence with them.

But what was especially maddening to Coast Guard officers until recently was their inability to do anything about crews who successfully scuttled their SPSS. Once the vessel sank, taking the evidence with it, the crew members simply jumped into the ocean and presented themselves as innocent seafarers; the incident became a search-and-rescue operation, Robinson says.

Espinoza recounts the stories SPSS crews would spin: “What are you talking about?” they say. “We’re fishermen, and our vessel went down, and thank god you guys came and saved us.”

Without evidence, the only way to prosecute crewmembers for drug smuggling was to obtain confessions. That just wasn’t going to happen, says Espinoza, because the crews knew the law: “No contraband, no evidence, no prosecution.”

Sea Change

Tired of having to let crews return to Colombia without being prosecuted, the Department of Justice and the Coast Guard teamed up to write language for a bill criminalizing the operation of an SPSS without a national flag of origin. The two agencies then took their proposal to Capitol Hill.

The legislation found a willing sponsor in Rep. Daniel Lungren (R-CA), who had seven co-sponsors including Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

When the bill was debated on the House floor, Poe pointed out the national security implications, stating, “While we believe these SPSS vessels are currently only carrying narcotics, nothing prevents them from falling into the hands of terrorists,” he said. “If these vessels can carry 13 tons of cocaine, they can carry weapons of mass destruction just as easily.”

Congress was convinced and voted overwhelmingly to send the bill to the White House. On October 13 of last year, President George W. Bush signed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act into law. The law makes it a felony to occupy an SPSS as well as a full submersible in international waters unless it is registered with a country, something the drug smugglers aren’t able to do. Those caught and convicted could receive a maximum of 15 years in prison, a $1 million civil penalty, or both.

Now even if the Coast Guard fails to seize the vessel and its cargo, it can still charge the crew with a felony, based on records regarding the vessel’s registration status. The Coast Guard had already used the law in five cases as of April, though no convictions have been obtained as the cases have not yet gone through the court system.

International Efforts

In addition to passing the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction law, the U.S. government has negotiated bilateral agreements with a range of countries. According to the recent INCSR, the United States has 28 bilateral agreements with its Caribbean, Central American, and South American partners. The U.S. government will not, however, name those partners, describing the agreements as classified.

The greatest anti-SPSS efforts, however, are reserved for Colombia, where the vessels are built, said Nicholas J. Kolen, section chief for Latin America and the Caribbean for the DEA’s Office of Global Enforcement, speaking at the Maritime Security Expo. DEA agents working in Colombia use every method at their disposal—confidential sources, undercover operations, wire intercepts, lead sharing, and grand juries—to fight this new drugtrafficking technology. Intelligence-gathering activities between Colombia and the DEA also expanded in 2008, according to the INCSR.

In addition, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard are providing training and assistance to the Colombian Navy. For example, the Coast Guard has participated in combined counterdrug operations with the Colombian Navy. The United States ranks Colombia as its number one extradition partner, Payne says.

Last November, the United States and Colombia agreed in principle to create an International Center for Maritime and Riverine Interdiction of Drug Trafficking and Other Illicit Activity; it is headquartered in Cartagena, Colombia. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen announced the agreement on the U.S. Southern Command’s blog after returning from the First Maritime Counter Drug Symposium of the Americas late last year. The center will function as a regional analysis and intelligence-fusion center and an international school for maritime interdiction training.

The United States has been helping Colombia fight the war on drugs and battle left-wing insurgencies since the 2000 passage of Plan Colombia. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the U.S. government has spent over $6 billion funding Bogotá’s internal war.

The Colombian government has had some successes fighting SPSS construction. In 2007, the Colombian Navy raided a clandestine jungle shipyard near the port of Buenaventura, a hub of the country’s drug trade. Two SPSSs were discovered. One was ready to launch, while the other was 70 percent complete. Colombian security forces also raided at least two more construction sites in 2008.

“We’re working very hard [with Colombia] on looking for SPSS-building locations, locating the SPSSs when they are out to sea, working on catching the guys that design them,” says the U.S. counternarcotics official.

The Mexican government is also cooperating; it has interdicted an unidentified number of SPSSs, Espinoza says, although he could not provide specifics. The INCSR reports that the Coast Guard has participated in combined maritime counterdrug operations with Mexico as well.

These efforts come as the Mexican government finds itself in a pitched battle with the country’s drug cartels. The violence has risen to epidemic proportions, creating concerns on the U.S. border.

For all Washington’s efforts to stop drug smuggling by SPSSs—as well as its other initiatives in aiding Mexico and other Southern neighbors in battling narcotraffickers—the war is not going well. As noted earlier, the State Department’s 2009 INCSR report that SPSSs alone are estimated to have hauled 423 metric tons of cocaine in 2008. Of that combined load, only 71 metric tons were prevented from getting to the street.

In February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by three former heads of state—Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil—called Washington’s counternarcotics strategies a “failed war” and said “we are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”

The commission recommends that the government shift its strategy to one that mirrors the European Union’s emphasis on curtailing the demand for drugs among the user population. That, they say, would be more productive than focusing so narrowly on the elusive goal of reducing the narcotic supply.

Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.