Mexican and South American drug cartels and their broader networks are entirely dependent on an ability to get their product onto US soil. And if there’s one thing that these organizations are good at, it’s changing their operating methods in order to stay one step ahead of the game.
As the United States, Mexico, and Colombia intensified their war on drugs throughout the late 1990s and the 2000s, the cartels had to reimagine various ways that they could smuggle cocaine into the US. With billions of dollars in annual revenue at stake, no idea for getting drugs into the US buyers was considered too outlandish — Sinaloa cartel leader Chapo Guzman even pioneered the use of cross-border drug catapults.
But the ultimate in high-risk, high-reward smuggling is the “narco submarine,” homemade subs that can bring thousands of pounds of product to the US at once.
According to a US Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) report on narco submarines citing Drug Enforcement Administration statistics, 80% of drugs smuggled into the US in 2012 came from maritime routes. And 30% of the drugs that arrived in the US by sea were conducted via narco submarines. Like narco tanks, narco submarines show how cartels have mastered do-it-yourself engineering. Even so, around one in four of the vessels are interdicted. US authorities have captured narco subs with as much as 7.5 tons of cocaine onboard.
There are four broad categories of vessel that fall under the narco submarine label: low-profile vessels, semi-submersibles, submersibles, and towed narco “torpedoes.”
These vessels have shown a notable leap in quality since they first debuted over 20 years ago.
The first narco sub detected in 1993 was built from wood and fiberglass, could not submerge, and could only travel at 10 miles per hour. But the FMSO notes that the latest models of subs can mask their heat signature, evade sonar and radar, and use lead siding to help mask their infrared signature, making their detection and capture extremely difficult.
Here are some narco subs that the authorities have captured over the years — evidence of the tenacity and resourcefulness of drug trafficking organizations that have to get their product to the US at any cost.