US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations agents had a close call with a high-value target in the Pacific Ocean.
The crew of a P-3 Long Range Tracker, working as part of a joint military-law-enforcement task force, picked up a self-propelled semi-submersible traveling in the eastern Pacific Ocean on March 2.
Agents later intercepted the semi-submersible, on which they found more than 12,800 pounds of cocaine, an amount with an estimated value of $193,939,000, according to a CBP release issued on March 24. US agents arrested four people operating the craft.
The seizure was short-lived however, as the “semi-submersible became unstable and sank,” the CBP said in a release. Semi-submersible crafts used for drug smuggling are also referred to as “narco submarines.”
Despite losing the cargo, the CBP characterized the operation as a success. “Our crews will continue to take every opportunity to disrupt this type of transnational criminal activity,” said John Wassong, the director of the National Air Security Operations Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Semi-submersibles used for smuggling are usually built to travel just below the surface, with just an exhaust pipe, a wheelhouse, and an airstack emerging from the water, according to Vice News. The vessels are often camouflaged, and many of them are constructed in Colombia, a major hub for cocaine production.
“Typically crews are made up of an experienced sailor, the so-called “captain” who can also be the person who handles communication with the ‘base,'” Javier Guerrero, a researcher focused on drug-trade technology, told Vice in 2015. “Most likely the crew is made up of experienced sailors,” as well, said Guerrero, and their experience and relationship with the cargo’s owner or the narco sub’s owner determines the command hierarchy on the vessel.
The emphasis traffickers have put on seaborne smuggling is one of the latest logistical and technical developments in the drug trade. Throughout much of 1970s and 1980s, most trafficking routes, via air and sea, transited the Caribbean. As interdiction efforts increased, smugglers switched to land and air routes through Mexico, eventually branching into more intense maritime smuggling.
“They started to build the submarines and they’re still using them, but it’s aircraft, commercial freighters, speedboats. You name it and they have it,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the DEA, told Business Insider. “They never settle on one method of transportation or on one route. They’re always exploring.”
In 2012, 80% of the illegal drugs smuggled to the US came on maritime routes, and 30% of the illegal drugs delivered to US shores via the sea were carried on narco submarines, according to a 2014 study cited by Vice News.
In late summer last year, US agents intercepted a semi-submersible laden with roughly eight tons of cocaine. US authorities offloaded about six tons of the illicit cargo before the vessel sank. The capture and subsequent sinking of the narco sub were recorded by the Coast Guard.
Had US agents been able to bring this latest shipment to shore, it would have been one of the more substantial hauls captured in recent months. In early February, Air and Marines Operations agents intercepted a 2,300-pound shipment with an estimated value of $172 million. In early March, CBP agents caught a 154-pound shipment in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which had an estimated value of $2 million.
Air and Marine Operations agents took part in 198 seizure, disruption, or interdiction efforts in their 42-million-square-mile operation zone — which spans the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico — in fiscal year 2015, capturing over 200,000 pounds of cocaine.