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Move and counter-move in DoD's war on smugglers

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn helped open a new joint command center down in Key West on Monday, which counter-smuggling officials hope will make America's southern guardians -- commanded by the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-South -- all the more effective. Pentagon officials and other top national security leaders take the threats posed by human and drug-smugglers so seriously that they've come up with their own DoD-style abbreviation for them: TCOs, for "Transnational Criminal Organizations." According to Air Force Gen. Douglas Frasier, who runs U.S. Southern Command, these gangs are equal to or greater than some traditional militaries, in terms of the financing they get and the danger they could pose to the U.S.

"If you look at the transnational criminal organizations, it's a well- financed, capable, capacity -- an enterprise, if you will," Frasier told reporters at the Pentagon last month. "Our estimates are anywhere from, on an annual basis, on a global basis, the transnational criminal organizations bring in $300 billion to $400 billion a year. That's a significant number when you put it against the capacities of the [South American] governments that we're talking about."

So, the brass figures, you need to be as organized and high-tech as possible to fight such a complicated adversary, which probably will never give up so long as there's such a huge demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. There is so much money involved that drug smugglers take incredible risks, and show uncommon ingenuity, trying to get their shipments north. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard and its allies began spotting crude submersibles, first towed behind surface ships and then moving under their own power, packed with cocaine bound for North America. Now, Frasier said, smugglers have begun experimenting with fully submersible vessels for transporting drugs.

The demand is there, which means the money is there, so the technology of these drug-subs is clearly improving. But where does the expertise come from? Are there legitimate naval architects designing these vessels -- and if so, where do they come from? Or are the "shipyards" of the South American jungles just one-off workshops?

Said Frasier: "I think there's a little bit of both within it. And to back up just a minute and give you a little bit more specifics on it, what I see is still about 50 percent -- almost 50 percent of the maritime traffic that transits drugs through the Eastern Caribbean and -- or Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean is primarily [carried by speedboats, known as "go-fast boats."] They transit up close to the coast within territorial waters, if you will, on both coasts of Central America, and then put ashore at various locations, depending on how they're operating and what their operating standard is. And then once they come ashore, then they transit -- drugs transit up through Central America into Mexico and then into the United States.

We saw a rise in the semi-submersibles, if you will, those vessels that float on the surface -- hundred feet long, can carry up to 10 tons of cocaine and can travel a thousand to 2,000 miles. They can easily transit from the northern part of South America to Mexico or Guatemala.

We have seen a downturn in the number of those vessels since 2007. We've seen a continuing decline in the vessels that we have been able to disrupt or detain. And we're starting to see now an increase in what we're calling those fully submersibles. It is still -- we have been working with the Colombian government and the government of Ecuador. They have been able to detain two of those vessels. Differing sophistication.

Where they're getting the expertise to construct these -- that is an issue we're still working on to make sure we can understand exactly who and where and how. But if you look at it, this is not -- this is an evolution, if you will, and how much of it is semisubmersible -- manufacturers, if you will, producing fully submersibles -- and how much of it is a new manufacturing capacity and a new capability, I don't have a good answer for you. It's an effort we're continuing to explore."

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