They’re known as “narco-submarines” — semi-submersible vessels used to ferry narcotics across ocean waters.
And they play a leading role in drug trafficking because they are essential tools Colombian criminal groups use to send their main product, cocaine, to their top distributors: Mexican drug organizations such as Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
Last month, acting United States Attorney Karin Hoppmann announced that six Colombians pled guilty to conspiracy to use these vessels to smuggle more than 19,000 kilograms, or 42,000 pounds, of cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice statement, the defendants were part of a transnational criminal organization that sent narco-submarines from Colombia into the Pacific Ocean, destined for Sinaloa Cartel members in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
In 2015 and 2016, the statement said, the United States intercepted three vessels traveling from Colombia to Mexico, each carrying thousands of kilograms of cocaine, “a substantial portion” of which “was ultimately intended for the United States.”
Narco-submarines are handcrafted structures, painted in ocean colors so that they are difficult to detect. They are hermetically sealed, contain diesel or electric engines, and are either self-propelled or carry people who help ensure the drugs get to their destinations.
For years, they have been used by cartels to smuggle cocaine and other drugs, mainly from Colombia and Ecuador to Central America, Mexico and the United States. They allow Colombian gangs, in association with Mexican drug cartels, to move drugs fast and boost profits.
“In the last decade, the submersibles production has increased due to great interest by criminal organizations,” said Mario Pazmiño, former chief of intelligence at the Ecuador Army and a security analyst.
“They have two important characteristics: Their profiled displacement on the coast makes them much less detectable due to their appearance,” and large volumes of drugs “can be loaded and transported quickly.”
Moving tons of drugs
But narco-submarines don’t always elude the authorities. Multiple governments’ radars and Navy patrols have netted an increasing number in recent months.
In September, Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano announced the capture of a narco-submarine that belonged to the “Gulf Clan,” a Colombian criminal organization. Three cartel members were detained.
The vessel, destined for Central America, could transport three tons of drugs.
Since 2018, 111 narco-submarines have been seized, Colombian authorities said. On average, the vessels carry around 286,600 pounds of cocaine and 1,543 pounds of marijuana. Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador are the most used routes by drug traffickers.
“Large quantities of cocaine are transported by sea,” Hernando Mattos Dager, a Colombian army official, told The Guardian, in a previous report. “It is much easier to move a ton of cocaine by sea than by plane because there are more checks on freight at airports.”
Experts say a significant portion of Colombia’s illicit drugs leaves through the Pacific coast and the rest via the Caribbean. So far this year, Colombian authorities have seized 623 tons of coca leaf, official figures show.
Nearly 36% of cocaine produced in Colombia passes through Ecuadorian territory, which represents about 700 tons, Pazmiño said, adding that Ecuador “has managed to detect and neutralize 130 tons.” That means 570 tons have reached their destinations, sometimes within the United States.
Given narco-submarines carry merchandise worth millions of dollars, traffickers hire engineers to build them.
“They need special training on construction, ship design to be able to make them safe first,” Pazmiño said.
“The lives of the people who go inside don’t matter. What they are interested in is the number of drugs they can carry inside. If a submarine sinks or fails, it will be a millionaire loss; we are talking about 100 or 200 million dollars.”
Cocaine demand fuels supply
Where there is a demand for drugs, supply will follow.
Worldwide, an estimated 20 million people reported past-year cocaine use in 2019, which is equivalent to 0.4% of the global population aged 15–64, according to the 2021’s World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In the United States, a federal survey found that about 5.5 million people 12 and older reported past-year cocaine use in 2019 and 2020.
Meanwhile, U.S. overdose deaths involving cocaine have been rising. In 2017, they increased by more than 34%, killing almost 14,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With so much demand for drugs, the United States is the most important market for cartels. Mexican criminal organizations dominate the imports and distribution of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin to America.
Of those drugs, cocaine is among the drugs seized most often at U.S. ports of entry, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. In fiscal year 2020, cocaine represented 74% of the drugs seized.
One reason is that cocaine production has risen in recent years.
Coca cultivation and cocaine production reached a record 605,408 acres and 1,010 metric tons, the White House announced in July.
“These trends show the need to increase holistic approaches that combine economic development, increased government presence, and citizen security, interdiction, and eradication in key rural areas to reduce cocaine production,” the White House said in a press release.
Colombia’s government cited figures from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy on coca and cocaine production showing that the fight against illicit drugs continues to be an enormous challenge, and said Colombia and the United States will continue to join forces as partners and allies.
But as governments continue to fight the drug trade, traffickers are upgrading their narco-submarines.
In 2019, a 72-foot-long ship set sail from Colombia to Galicia, Spain traveling more than 4,970 miles before being intercepted by Spanish authorities. It carried more than 6,613 pounds of cocaine.
This August, Colombian authorities seized a narco-submarine in the Pacific Ocean that was carrying 18 tons of cocaine, or approximately 4.5 million doses, worth $60 million dollars.
And in late October, the Ecuadorian Army intercepted in international waters another narco-submarine, with three brand new diesel engines attached.
Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group, said the Colombian government’s approach to stemming the international supply of drugs is counterproductive because it focuses on destroying coca. “And essentially, what it does is penalize the weakest parts of the Colombian society, which are very poor farmers who grow coca while having minimal effect on the actual profit centers of the armed groups.”
Instead, she said: “The focus of drug policy in Colombia needs to shift upward on the supply chain. So let’s focus on destroying the raw materials more focused specifically on targeting the financing of these organizations and disarticulating the profit networks that surround them.”
Karol Suárez is a Venezuela-born journalist based out of Mexico City. Reach her on Twitter: @KarolSuarez_