Cocaine Captains: Sinking Submerged Drug Smuggling

December 21, 2018

Almost fifty years into America’s anti-narcotics domestic and foreign policy initiatives, launched with Nixon’s signing of the Controlled Substances Act (colloquially referred to as the “War on Drugs”), the arms race between international drug cartels and the law enforcement agencies tasked with stopping them soldiers on. Still a centerpiece of policy decisions by today’s politicians, both sides of the aisle have been seeking creative ways to curb what has become a public health crisis in America. President Trump has long-advocated for the construction of a physical wall to stretch the entire length Mexican-American border, in large part he says to stem the tide of illegal narcotics from entering the country. Though not the largest country of origin of smuggled narcotics, Mexico is the only country that shares a southern border with the United States. Measuring about 1,933 miles long, 4,600 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents have jurisdiction to intercept and detain those apprehended at the border suspected of transporting drugs illegally. But while such a barrier may hinder the terrestrial transit of drugs destined for American markets, President Trump’s high walls can’t cover the high seas.

Almost fifty years into America’s anti-narcotics domestic and foreign policy initiatives, launched with Nixon’s signing of the Controlled Substances Act (colloquially referred to as the “War on Drugs”), the arms race between international drug cartels and the law enforcement agencies tasked with stopping them soldiers on. Still a centerpiece of policy decisions by today’s politicians, both sides of the aisle have been seeking creative ways to curb what has become a public health crisis in America. President Trump has long-advocated for the construction of a physical wall to stretch the entire length Mexican-American border, in large part he says to stem the tide of illegal narcotics from entering the country. Though not the largest country of origin of smuggled narcotics, Mexico is the only country that shares a southern border with the United States. Measuring about 1,933 miles long, 4,600 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents have jurisdiction to intercept and detain those apprehended at the border suspected of transporting drugs illegally. But while such a barrier may hinder the terrestrial transit of drugs destined for American markets, President Trump’s high walls can’t cover the high seas.

In recent years, drug cartels have been opting for large scale transport of narcotics aboard vessels instead of taking the risk of sneaking across the American boarder; and “large scale” is an understatement. According to the Joint Interagency Task Force South of the U.S. Coast Guard, 95% of drugs entering the country are moving on the water via container ships, non-commercial vessels, pleasure boats, sail boats, and fishing boats. The Coast Guard’s drug interdiction task forces cover 40 million square nautical miles of open ocean; they account for over 50% of cocaine interdiction every year, the highest volume drug entering the U.S. market. Utilizing the latest technology of the United States Military, the Coast Guard employs 40,000 active duty sailors, six different models of vessels and aircraft each, and their own intelligence networks as well as those of the FBI, CIA, DEA, NSA, Department of Justice.

Law enforcement agencies and politicians are not the only factions evolving their response to this new era of drug smuggling. Cartels have fought back, improving their operations by trading decades old tactics of smuggling in order to adopt newer technologies and techniques to try and evade detection. Last year, the Coast Guard reported a resurgence of a previously seen tactic: “narco-subs.” Narco-sub is short for “Narcotic Submarine,” though the name can be misleading. While often not a fully submersible vessel in the sense an Ohio-Class submarine is (though fully submersible vessels have been intercepted while smuggling drugs), narco-subs seek to use the same core feature to accomplish their mission: stealth. Narco-subs are low cut vessels that ride either right at or right below the surface, making them harder to track on radar than boats with a higher profile. Tough to spot from Coast Guard patrol boats or aerial surveillance, narco-subs can carry extremely high quantities of drugs with a much greater probability of evasion than standard oceangoing vessels.

Tasked with detecting and intercepting these ever-evolving forms of smuggling, the Coast Guard’s problem is the same as the cartel’s ambition: money. For an agency that makes billions of dollars’ worth of drug interdictions annually at sea, funding is being threatened in a rather ironic way: the proposed boarder wall that is intended to halt smugglers. A turf war in Washington is arising over the best policies moving forward on drug interdiction; whether it is more efficient to fund the wall, or USCG vessels intent on drug interdiction. Partisanship on the issue is strong: this summer, Congressional Republicans proposed a funding cut to a scheduled USCG icebreaker in order to help fund the border wall. Democrats and some high ranking Coast Guard personnel, indicating that they believe the wall is a distraction from more effective methods of halting the supply of drugs, say the money is better spent elsewhere. But if the choice is to be made on statistics alone, the Coast Guard has a solid claim: a record 223.8 metric tons of cocaine were interdicted in 2017, beating the record 201.3 metric tons of just the year before. The Coast Guard says newer ships that would be acquired with additional funding from Congress would employ the latest technology, better equipping the service to detect and interdict drug smugglers who are adapt at trying to stay one step ahead of the game.

As the “War on Drugs” enters its next half century, it brings with it new policy rationales and new technology – utilized by both competing factions – to vie for the upper hand. While Washington decides how to combat the distinctions of the issue, the combatants sail on. x”,se),ue(“

initiatives, launched with Nixon’s signing of the Controlled Substances Act (colloquially referred to as the “War on Drugs”), the arms race between international drug cartels and the law enforcement agencies tasked with stopping them soldiers on. Still a centerpiece of policy decisions by today’s politicians, both sides of the aisle have been seeking creative ways to curb what has become a public health crisis in America. President Trump has long-advocated for the construction of a physical wall to stretch the entire length Mexican-American border, in large part he says to stem the tide of illegal narcotics from entering the country. Though not the largest country of origin of smuggled narcotics, Mexico is the only country that shares a southern border with the United States. Measuring about 1,933 miles long, 4,600 U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents have jurisdiction to intercept and detain those apprehended at the border suspected of transporting drugs illegally. But while such a barrier may hinder the terrestrial transit of drugs destined for American markets, President Trump’s high walls can’t cover the high seas.

Tasked with detecting and intercepting these ever-evolving forms of smuggling, the Coast Guard’s problem is the same as the cartel’s ambition: money.

In recent years, drug cartels have been opting for large scale transport of narcotics aboard vessels instead of taking the risk of sneaking across the American boarder; and “large scale” is an understatement. According to the Joint Interagency Task Force South of the U.S. Coast Guard, 95% of drugs entering the country are moving on the water via container ships, non-commercial vessels, pleasure boats, sail boats, and fishing boats. The Coast Guard’s drug interdiction task forces cover 40 million square nautical miles of open ocean; they account for over 50% of cocaine interdiction every year, the highest volume drug entering the U.S. market. Utilizing the latest technology of the United States Military, the Coast Guard employs 40,000 active duty sailors, six different models of vessels and aircraft each, and their own intelligence networks as well as those of the FBI, CIA, DEA, NSA, Department of Justice.

Law enforcement agencies and politicians are not the only factions evolving their response to this new era of drug smuggling. Cartels have fought back, improving their operations by trading decades old tactics of smuggling in order to adopt newer technologies and techniques to try and evade detection. Last year, the Coast Guard reported a resurgence of a previously seen tactic: “narco-subs.” Narco-sub is short for “Narcotic Submarine,” though the name can be misleading. While often not a fully submersible vessel in the sense an Ohio-Class submarine is (though fully submersible vessels have been intercepted while smuggling drugs), narco-subs seek to use the same core feature to accomplish their mission: stealth. Narco-subs are low cut vessels that ride either right at or right below the surface, making them harder to track on radar than boats with a higher profile. Tough to spot from Coast Guard patrol boats or aerial surveillance, narco-subs can carry extremely high quantities of drugs with a much greater probability of evasion than standard oceangoing vessels.

Tasked with detecting and intercepting these ever-evolving forms of smuggling, the Coast Guard’s problem is the same as the cartel’s ambition: money. For an agency that makes billions of dollars’ worth of drug interdictions annually at sea, funding is being threatened in a rather ironic way: the proposed boarder wall that is intended to halt smugglers. A turf war in Washington is arising over the best policies moving forward on drug interdiction; whether it is more efficient to fund the wall, or USCG vessels intent on drug interdiction. Partisanship on the issue is strong: this summer, Congressional Republicans proposed a funding cut to a scheduled USCG icebreaker in order to help fund the border wall. Democrats and some high ranking Coast Guard personnel, indicating that they believe the wall is a distraction from more effective methods of halting the supply of drugs, say the money is better spent elsewhere. But if the choice is to be made on statistics alone, the Coast Guard has a solid claim: a record 223.8 metric tons of cocaine were interdicted in 2017, beating the record 201.3 metric tons of just the year before. The Coast Guard says newer ships that would be acquired with additional funding from Congress would employ the latest technology, better equipping the service to detect and interdict drug smugglers who are adapt at trying to stay one step ahead of the game.

As the “War on Drugs” enters its next half century, it brings with it new policy rationales and new technology – utilized by both competing factions – to vie for the upper hand. While Washington decides how to combat the distinctions of the issue, the combatants sail on. x”,se),ue(“