A Narco Submarine, also known as a drug submarine or smuggling submersible, is a type of watercraft used by drug traffickers to transport illegal substances, most commonly cocaine. They are mainly used to move drugs from South American countries such as Colombia to North America, especially Mexico and the United States. In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of these vessels to traffic narcotics into Europe and especially Spain.
These submarines are built to avoid law enforcement patrols. Law enforcement agencies such as the US Coast Guard, devote considerable resources to the detection and interdiction of narco-submarines, as they pose a significant challenge to drug interdiction efforts. Despite these efforts, narco-submarines continue to be used by drug traffickers due to their ability to covertly transport large quantities of narcotics.
In this article, we explore the history of these vessels and the different types that exist today. It also looks at their limitations and operations where they have been most relevantly used. This article focuses on the use of narco submarines in America and its expansion to Europe through Spain.
In the 1980s, smugglers favoured the use of light aircraft and go-fast boats to move illicit substances. These go-fast boats were powerboats with extra outboard engines that made it easier to evade authorities. However, as radar technology advanced, go-fast boats became increasingly susceptible to radar detection, prompting the creation of semi-submersible vessels (source).
The first encounter with a semi-submersible occurred in 1988, when US authorities discovered an unmanned 6.4 m (21 ft) submarine in Boca Raton, Florida. It was made to be remotely controlled and towed by a boat. Since the hatch could only be opened from the outside, investigators and authorities suspect the sub was used for smuggling even though it was empty at the time of its seizure (source).
2.2 Cartel de Medellín
In the early 1990s, the Medellin Cartel of Colombia started to view “narco-subs” as a sneaky and cutting-edge technique of product distribution. The Colombian drug cartels at the time understood the economic value of vertical integration, meaning that they controlled the different steps in the product value chain (e.g. coca cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, etc.) to maximise profits. Narco-subs controlled the delivery of narcotics to their destination while reducing the risk of detection, interception, and apprehension.
As go-fast boats became more of a liability, The development of a craft that could go great distances, avoid radar, and be self-propelled seemed to be the main objective of drug traffickers. Colombian drug cartels started investing in narco-submarines as an alternative way of distribution. The cartels hired engineers from the Russian Navy to design and build narco-submarines.
The remaining lieutenants and their different growing drug trafficking organisations continued to invest in narco-submarine technologies after the early 1990s fall of the Medellin Cartel and the following arrests of the Cali Cartel leaders.
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