Monday, August 9, 2021

Criminal innovations: narco-subs

How do you transport lots of drugs internationally without getting caught?

The United States is one of the world's largest consumers of illegal drugs but the majority of the illegal drugs it consumes are manufactured in South America. Illegal drug producers need to transport their product northwards at the lowest price while evading detection. They've tried flying, but radar and aircraft have proved effective at stopping them, and they've tried boats, but coastguard patrols and radar have again stopped them. If you can't go over the water, and you can't go on the water, then how about going under the water? Drug cartels have turned to submarines and their variants for stealthy transportation. These submarines go by the generic name of narco-subs. As we'll see, it's not just the South Americans who are building submarines for illegal activities.

South American narco-subs

The experts on transporting drugs long distances by sea are the South American drug cartels; they've shown an amazing amount of innovative thinking over the years. Currently, they're using three main types of craft: low-profile vessels, submarines, and torpedoes. Low-profile vessels and submarines typically have small crews of 2-4 people, while torpedoes are uncrewed.

Low-profile vessels (LPVs)

To avoid radar and spotter planes, the cartels have turned to stealth technology; they've designed boats that have a very low radar cross-section with the smallest possible above-the-sea structures. 

(A low-profile vessel that was intercepted. Image source: US Customs and Border Protection.)
(Another low-profile vessel. Image source: US Customs and Border Protection.)

These vessels originally started as variations on existing commercial speedboats, with modifications to make them run lower in the water. Now, they're custom designs, typically long and thin, designed to pierce waves rather than ride over them. A typical newer LPV might be 3m wide by 30m long - quite a long vessel, but very narrow. H.I. Sutton describes several types of LPV in his Forbes article.

Submarines

There are various types of narco-subs, ranging from semi-submersibles to full-on submarines.

Semi-submersibles ride just below the surface, typically at snorkel depth. This image of a 2019 semi-submersible captured off Peru gives you the general idea.

(Semi-submersible narco-sub, Peru, 2019. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The vessel is plainly based on a 'standard' boat and is designed to run just under the water. The very few above-surface structures make the vessel hard to spot with radar, or even from the air.

The Peruvian vessel is plainly a modified boat, but custom-built vessels exist, here's an image of one custom semi-submersible used by Columbian drug smugglers just before its capture in 2007. The blue paint job is camouflage.

(Semi-submersible narco-sub caught in 2007. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

This September 2019 image shows USCG boarding a 12m semi-submersible in the eastern Pacific. It had a crew of 4 and was carrying $165mn in cocaine.

(Source: Navy Times)

The drug cartels have created true submarines capable of traveling under the water to depths of a few hundred feet. Some of these submarines have even reached the astonishing length of 22m, making them comparable to midget submarines used by the worlds' navies (see Covert Shores comparison). 

In 2010, this 22m long monster was discovered in the Ecuadorian jungle. NPR have a long segment on how it was found and what happened next. The sub is estimated to have a range of 6,800 nautical miles and a dive depth of 62 feet. These numbers aren't impressive by military standards but bear in mind, this sub is designed for stealth, not warfare.

(22m long, fully submersible narco-sub. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

This isn't even the largest sub found, Hannah Stone reports on one narco-sub with a length of 30m, a crew of 4, air conditioning, and a small kitchen!

In November 2019, a narco-sub was caught in Galicia in Spain. Although the design was nothing new, its origin was. Authorities believe it started its journey in Brazil, crossing the Atlantic ocean to get to Spain (Covert Shores). This vessel was a semi-submersible design.

Bear in mind, all these submarines were built surreptitiously, often far away from population centers, which means no cutting-edge machine tools or precision parts and limited material supply. The subs are often constructed using wood and fiberglass - not special-purpose alloys.

Torpedoes

This is a relatively new innovation. Torpedoes are submersible vessels typically towed behind fishing vessels or other ships. If the ship is intercepted, the torpedo is cut loose, and after a period of time, it surfaces a camouflaged marker, allowing it to be retrieved after the authorities have gone.

This article on Insight Crime describes how torpedoes work in practice.

European narco-subs

It's not just the South Americans who are creating narco-subs, the Europeans are at it too. In February 2020, Spanish police raided a warehouse in Málaga where they found a very sophisticated narco-sub under construction. This is a well-constructed vessel, using hi-tech parts imported from countries around Europe. The paint job isn't accidental either - it's all about stealth.


(Image source: Europol)

Covert Shores reports that this is the fourth narco-sub caught in Spain.

Transporting cars illegally

So far, I've focused on narco-subs and drug trafficking, but similar technology has been used for other criminal activities. In China, Armored Stealth Boats have been used to traffic stolen luxury cars. The whole thing seems to be so James Bond, it can't be true, but it is. Covert Shores has an amazing article and images on the whole thing.

Some disturbing thoughts

There's a tremendous amount of risk-taking going on here; how many of these subs end up at the bottom of the sea? On the flip-side, how many are getting through undetected? Of course, if large amounts of drugs can be transported this way, what about other contraband? Many of these subs are constructed with relatively primitive equipment and materials. What could a rogue nation-state do with up-to-date machine tools and modern materials?

Innovation - but for the wrong ends

All this innovation is amazing. The idea of constructing a submarine in the jungles of South America with limited materials and piloting it across the Atlantic is incredible. The sad thing is, all this creative effort is in support of criminal activity. It would be great if this get-up-and-go could be directed at something that benefits people instead. It seems to me that the fundamental problem is the economic incentive system - drugs pay well and there are few alternatives in the jungle. 

Reading more

The expert on narco-subs, and indeed on many OSINT aspects of naval warfare, is H.I. Sutton, who produces the website Covert Shores. If you want to read more details of narco-subs, check out his great website, Covert Shores.

USNI covers stories on narco-subs and other naval topics.

"Narco-Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels Used for Drug Smuggling Purposes" is a little old, but it's still good background reading.

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