This article is a part of our 2021 Series on Caribbean Maritime Security. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
Laura was small, but she wasn’t innocent. ‘Laura’ was the name given to the first Narco Submarine, discovered abandoned near the Caribbean island of San Andrés, by Colombian authorities in 1993. This unusual vessel was constructed from two fiberglass sailing boat hulls glued together, one on top of the other, to form a submersible pressure hull. It had a deep keel to keep it stable and compensate for the tall radar mast which also acted as the snorkel when it was running submerged. Clearly it was a somewhat experimental vessel and the, undoubtedly, unique design has not been seen since. Yet, Laura ushered in the age of the ‘Narco-Submarine’ throughout Caribbean smuggling routes.
Narco Submarines are drug smuggling boats which attempt to use special design features to help evade detection. Some are ‘true submarines,’ meaning that they can operate completely submerged, but most are just extremely low-profile vessels (LPVs). This is enough to make them extremely hard to see or detect on radar and their continued use is a testament to their effectiveness.
Nearly 30 years after ‘Laura’ the Caribbean remains a major cocaine smuggling route. Narco Subs have become a major means of transporting drugs and have spread from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and even across trans-Atlantic routes. The most recent Narco Submarine incident reported in the Caribbean occurred on February 19, 2020. Panamanian forces interdicted a LPV near Bocas del Toro at the northern tip of Panama. While, in many ways, typical of so-called Narco Submarines the vessel was unusually large, with two marine diesel motors and carrying 5 metric tons of cocaine. The increased payload appears to be part of a recent trend. Despite this notable case, today, the vast majority of reported Narco Submarines are on Pacific smuggling routes.
Why are Narco Submarines less common in the Caribbean than the Pacific?
Recently Narco Submarines have become more common in the Eastern Pacific, while “Go-Fast” vessels have tended to predominate Caribbean smuggling. Go-fast vessels (GFVs) are just power boats (or up-engine fishing boats), whose lack of stealth is made up for by their extreme speed . Go-slows are similar again but, as the name implies, have less speed. Go-fasts are much cheaper than Narco Submarines and are easier to source because they are commercially available. They can also blend in with local fishing fleets and do not require special boat handling or navigations skills to operate (often times they are crewed by local fishermen). However, they are much less optimized for their illicit role than Narco Subs, which are custom-built for trafficking cocaine. The intuitive view is that, overall, Narco Submarines are better for smuggling. Despite this, in the Caribbean Go-Fast boats and Go-Slow boats appear more common. Despite their lack of stealth they still retain some advantages over Narco Submarines.
One factor is distance. Trips from Colombia to Caribbean islands, or Central America are much shorter than trips from Colombia’s Pacific Coast and there are intermediate stopping points where traffickers can rest or refuel. Traffickers using Go-Fast boats usually load the boat with barrels of extra fuel and about 0.5-1 metric tons of cocaine. The boat then makes a run for it, hoping to spend as little time at sea as possible. Sometimes to reduce the chance of detection they stop and drift during the day, pulling a blue plastic tarpaulin over the boat to act as camouflage. Also, larger fishing vessels can act as mother ships, towing one or more Go-Fasts (or Go-Slows) which increases their range.
Another major factor in why Caribbean trafficking routes see fewer Narco Subs may be the relative difficulty in setting up the clandestine boat yards to manufacture them. Narco Subs are usually custom built in remote, jungle shipyards near rivers giving them discrete access to the ocean. Colombia’s Pacific coast is relatively uninhabited, there are very few settlements and virtually no major infrastructure, so such sites can usually stay unobserved (or at least unreported). Because the Pacific coast is more remote the Colombian government has less control over it and the adjacent areas than other parts of the country, leaving drug smuggling organizations more of a free hand. Additionally, much of the land on the Pacific coast is not privately owned. This means that there are fewer land owners who might object to Narco Subs being built on their land. By comparison Colombia’s Caribbean coastline is much more populated and better policed. It also has fewer river outlets to allow Narco Subs sea access.
Beyond Colombia: Venezuela and the Caribbean Islands
Not all Caribbean Narco Submarines are built or launched from Colombia. There have been attempts to build smuggling vessels on Caribbean islands, and Narco Submarines have been found in several other South American countries like Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela. Increasingly, Venezuela is becoming an permissive environment for cocaine traffickers and may be a launch point for Narco Subs.
The Maduro regime frequently interdicts aircraft suspected of trafficking cocaine and makes a show of displaying destroyed aircraft, often publicly placing the blame on Colombia. But it seems likely that some Venezuelans are also involved in these aspects of the drugs trade and it is suspected that other traffickers are permitted to operate by the Maduro government, and last year the US Department of Justice charged Maudro himself with a “decades-long narco-terrorism and international cocaine trafficking conspiracy.” Whether Narco Submarines are operating from Venezuela in any number, and the degree of government involvement, remains to be seen.
Why we might see an increase in Narco Submarines in the Caribbean
Drug trafficking organizations are run as businesses and make pragmatic decisions when choosing smuggling methods. Profit and risk are weighed, and routes are optimized as much as possible. While they generally maintain diverse means of smuggling, one method can proliferate as others wane. So, the advantages of Narco Submarines may become more compelling if the relative profitability of Go-Fasts, or other means, declines.
The most conspicuous reason why this might happen is due to increased law enforcement pressuring the go-fast routes. Since April U.S. Southern Command has been conducting ‘Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations’ in the Eastern Pacific. This has significantly increased U.S. law enforcement presence and brought down Navy assets with advanced capabilities, in addition to U.S. Coast Guard cutters. Local navies and law enforcement, plus European navies supporting their Caribbean territories are also persistently active. If this increased enforcement makes the easier to detect Go-Fast and Go-Slow vessels untenable, traffickers may increase their use of Narco Subs in the Caribbean.
Traffickers may also be attracted to the increased payloads observed in Narco Submarine incidents in 2020. Versions of Narco Submarines, which typically carry 1.4-1.6 metric tons of cocaine are now being intercepted with 2-3 tons and some larger models are carrying 5-6 tons. It is possible that this increase in cargo-size is the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on other means of smuggling such as air travel and shipping. It may also be influenced by the increased law enforcement activity.
Only time will tell how this confluence of factors impacts the relative distribution of Narco Submarines and smuggling routes between the Pacific and the Caribbean. But an increase in Caribbean activity, specifically an increase in Narco Submarines is not only possible, it may be coming,
H I Sutton
H I Sutton is a writer, illustrator and analyst who specializes in submarines and sub-surface systems. His work can be found at his website Covert Shores.