Colombia's cocaine production is at an all-time high, and the country's navy keeps catching 'narco subs'

US Customs and Border ProtectionA suspected smuggling vessel that caught fire as US Coast Guard and Navy crews approached in the eastern Pacific, April 7, 2018.
  • Colombia’s navy intercepted two “narco subs” during the first half of August.
  • That brought the total caught this year to 14 – more than triple the four caught last year.
  • The increase comes amid years of rising cocaine production in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug.

Colombia’s navy has intercepted 14 semi-submersible vessels, known as “narco subs,” in the Pacific Ocean this year, more than triple what it seized all last year, and the uptick comes as the country grapples with a sustained increase in cocaine production.

Two of the seizures took place during the first half of August, according to Dialogo, the official publication of US Southern Command.

On August 1, a unit from Colombia’s Pacific Naval Force – aided by naval intelligence and a Colombian air force reconnaissance aircraft – captured a vessel a little over 20 miles off the country’s southwest Pacific coast. The vessel was found adrift due to mechanical problems.

Semi-submersible narco sub Colombia Pacific Ocean drug traffickingColombian navyA semi-submersible vehicle intercepted by the Colombian navy in the eastern Pacific Ocean, August 15, 2018.

Another seizure came two weeks later.

With the help of long-range radar and a ScanEagle surveillance drone were involved, Colombian navy found what the service described as an “artesanal,” or handmade, craft roughly 36 feet long and 9 feet wide heading toward Central America.

Colombian forces intercepted the vessel and found it had a mechanical failure in its motors and was taking on water. Navy personnel removed the people on board and tried to tow the vessel back to port, but it sank.

The vessel intercepted on August 1 was carrying more than 2 tons of drugs. The one caught on August 15 was loaded with 3,800 pounds of cocaine.

Dialogo called the losses “a serious blow to coffers of narcotrafficking organisations – more than $US1 million goes into building a semi-submersible.”

Colombian officials also said the arrests of 115 people involved in drug trafficking this year had weakened criminal groups’ logistical networks.

A kilo of cocaine could be worth $US5,000 on Colombia’s coast but reach $US15,000 in value in Central America and $US33,000 on the international market, said Colombian navy Rear Adm. Orlando Grisales, head of the Pacific Naval Force’s anti-drug-trafficking task force Poseidon.

“As the drug leaves the coast and gets closer to the port of destination, its price goes up,” Grisales told Dialogo.

While each vessel lost is a sunk cost for the organisation that owns it, their cargos are often worth enough to make up the expense many times over.

Each of the shipments documented by Dialogo had multimillion-dollar valuations – the August 1 cargo was estimated to be worth $US66 million.

‘Swatting mosquitoes’

Narco sub low-profile vessel GuatemalaGuatemalan army/US Southern CommandA abandoned low-profile vessel found by the Guatemalan coast guard on April 22, 2017.

The term “narco sub” is generally applied to several different types of vessels.

The majority of those seized are low-profile vessels, which resemble traditional “go-fast” boats.

Low-profile vessels are designed to run at or near surface level, often with water washing over their decks, and are configured so much of the interior can carry narcotics. (Low-profile vessels are often misidentified as semi-submersibles.)

The two vessels seized in August bring the total to 14 intercepted on Colombia’s Pacific coast so far this year. (Colombian navy reports indicate at least two others were seized in the past two months.)

Colombia Ecuador trafficking routesAdam Isacson/US Southern CommandSuspected trafficking routes detected in 2016, exiting southwest Colombia and northwest Ecuador.

Those 14 vessels seized are more than triple the four that were intercepted all of last year, according to Dialogo, and are a considerable portion of the 111 that have been intercepted since 1993, when the first was found on an island off Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

That apparent uptick points to both to increasing use of “narco subs” and to more concerted efforts to catch them, said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Colombian traffickers like to use the semi-submersibles because they are hard to detect” and cheaper than full-fledged submarines, Vigil said.

Semi-submersible and low-profile vessels are largely made of fibreglass, and the most expensive component is typically the engine, Vigil said, but they can carry significant payloads “and they’re probably just as effective.”

Central America drug trafficking mapAdam Isacson/US Southern CommandSuspected trafficking routes between northern South America and northern Central America, detected in 2016.

There has been “massive production” of semi-submersibles in recent years, Vigil said.

In September 2017, the US Coast Guard announced a “resurgence of low-profile smuggling vessels,” reporting that between June and September that year it had seized seven such vessels in the Pacific.

Those interdictions took place off the coasts of Central and South America, where such vessels are most active, Vigil said. (Vessels leaving Colombia sometimes go around the Galapagos Islands in what may be an effort to avoid underwater detection.)

“When they go through the Pacific side, they usually stop short of Mexico. One of their primary [destination] sites on the Pacific is Guatemala,” from which point traffickers usually move drugs overland through Mexico, Vigil said.

Honduras is a major stopping point on the Atlantic side, Vigil added. From there, drug loads follow a similar route to the US.

DEA drug trafficking routes mapUS Drug Enforcement Administration

Dialogo’s report came the same week that the United Nations announced that cocaine production and the cultivation of its base ingredient, coca, had again reached record levels in 2017.

UN estimates released on September 19 showed cocaine production in Colombia rose to 1,379 metric tons in 2017, topping the 1,053 metric tons produced in 2016. The area under cultivation also rose to 660,235 square miles in 2017 from about 563,000 square miles in 2016.

The UN’s totals differed from those reported by the US government earlier this year, but the US’s numbers – 806,953 square miles under cultivation and 921 metric tons produced – were also new highs.

2017 is the latest in several years of increases in coca cultivation and cocaine production. Thriving production and high profits mean traffickers will continue to build narco subs and authorities will continue to find them, Vigil said.

Trying to catch them is like “swatting mosquitoes,” he said. “You’re going to get some.”

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