Latin American drug cartels continue to launch scores of semi-submersible, cocaine hauling submarines northward from jungle hideouts to feed insatiable U.S. drug markets. The fiberglass vessels, typically 60 to 70 feet in length and able to haul 10 tons of cocaine, are assembled in remote workshops, hidden deep in coastal mangrove swamps and even far inland in Colombia’s mountainous jungle. Powered by diesel motors, the subs travel by night and lay low during the day, almost wake-less, they are incredibly difficult to spot from the air.
How hard? During a recent exercise, a captured semi-submersible was towed behind a ship and planes and helicopters flew over to try and spot it from the air, but could not, said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of Southern Command, speaking to defense reporters yesterday. The vessels are not true submarines; they’re built with a very low profile to the water, painted in various shades of blue to blend into the ocean, but with favorable currents they can travel up to 5,000 miles.
Fraser’s command has had success capturing the semi-submersibles. Drug cartels launched more of the cocainecows in 2008, when SOUTHCOM seized 76; last year 52 subs were either detected or disrupted. “That’s a one year data point, I don’t know whether that means the trend has fallen off or they’ve changed their tactics.” Most sub seizures came about through informant’s tips. They key is finding the jungle hideouts where the subs are built, because once underway, well, there’s a lot of ocean to scour. SOUTHCOM nets about 25 percent of the total drugs shipped north, Fraser said.
More and better aerial surveillance and reconnaissance is SOUTHCOM’s biggest need, he said, an aerial asset that can provide broad area maritime surveillance; sensors that could peer into jungle foliage would also be nice. “In the mangrove swamps in western Colombia you can be ten feet away from where somebody’s building a semi-submersible and never see it.”