Defense Media Network

Drug-trafficking Submersibles

The drug-smuggling semi-submersible makes its first public appearance in the Caribbean Sea.

It was an auspicious close to fiscal year 2011 – a year in which, 98 smugglers were detained and about 60,000 pounds of cocaine and 4,400 pounds of marijuana, with a combined street value of approximately $727 million, was prevented from reaching U.S. shores. But the task force wasn’t finished for the calendar year: On Oct. 28, 2011, off the coast of Roatan Island, Honduras, another submersible was interdicted and scuttled – but not before crews could remove 15,435 pounds of cocaine, worth about $185 million in street value.

While each of the SPSSs interdicted in the Caribbean so far was spotted by a patrol aircraft belonging to the Coast Guard, the Department of Defense, or Customs and Border Protection, it would be a mistake to think the task force is merely stumbling across submersibles in the region. “Aircraft are often deployed for surveillance,” McPherson said, “based on intelligence that may be developed or by looking at trends in the area. And then those ships and aircraft are assigned on patrols based on the information we have at the time, to enhance their probability of detecting something.” In each of the Caribbean cases so far, at least one Coast Guard cutter was within 200 miles of the spotted submersible.

The service’s role in such interdictions highlights a unique interplay within the task force, one that helps its members take maximum advantage of the assets at their disposal. “Their primary emphasis,” McPherson said, “is to support the interdiction effort by providing detection through intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance, and monitoring that then allows the Coast Guard to take tactical control of those surface assets, those ships, to conduct a boarding and interdiction. They’re handed over to us for the actual boarding and interdiction due to our expertise and our unique law enforcement authorities.”

Crewmembers from the CGC Northland offload 3,500 pounds of cocaine at Base Miami Beach, Fla., March 16, 2012. Northland’s crew seized the narcotic from a 35-foot go-fast vessel in the Caribbean Sea March 3, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nick Ameen

Though the July 13 interdiction was the Caribbean’s first, it merely confirmed the suspicions of many. “I think it would probably be a little bit naïve for us to think we interdicted the first one,” McPherson said. With these confirmations, the task force can now turn its focus to the huge bulk shipments carried by the submersibles – a key counter-drug strategy of conducting “wholesale” interdictions, rather than allowing contraband to consume the efforts of local law enforcement officers throughout the United States. The strategy also allows international counter-drug efforts to get closer to the drug-trafficking organizations themselves and achieve the goal of breaking up their operations. “That’s much harder to do when you’re going after a street crime drug dealer as opposed to those who are being funded and organized and getting direction from the leaders of the organization in the source country,” said McPherson.


Operation Martillo

In February 2012, JIATF South assumed leadership of a broader effort, involving partners throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Operation Martillo, as the effort is known, targets the coastal waters of Central America. Eighty percent of illicit trafficking happens by sea, and the vast majority of that travels along the coasts of the isthmus and up the coast of Mexico to the United States. As the operation was launched, maritime and air assets from the U.S. Navy and other partners flocked to the coast. Operation Martillo yielded immediate results, with the CGC Northland intercepting a go-fast boat with 3,500 pounds of cocaine on March 3. On March 22, U.S. and Dutch naval forces intercepted another boat carrying more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine. On March 30, the Coast Guard and Honduran navy intercepted its fifth semi-submersible in the Caribbean – the 30th SPSS interdicted in the transit zone in less than six years.

The March 30 interdiction was enabled by the combination of two Coast Guard assets – the 210-foot medium endurance cutter Decisive, which is built for multi-week offshore patrols involving intensive communication requirements and helicopter and pursuit-boat operations, and the 110-foot patrol vessel Pea Island, whose speed ultimately closed the gap between the law enforcement detachment and the submersible.

A CGC Mohawk boarding team member carries a bale of cocaine interdicted from an SPSS vessel in the Western Caribbean Sea Sept. 17, 2011. U.S. Coast Guard photo

The wholesale interdictions carried out by the task force require significant investments; tracking and pursuing an SPSS is a task that requires several assets. The bulk of the medium endurance cutter fleet is approximately 40 years old and slated for replacement by the new offshore patrol cutter (OPC). When it hits the coastal waters of the Caribbean, the OPC, a multi-mission asset with greater capabilities than the existing medium endurance cutters – including greater range, endurance, and sea keeping; more powerful weapons; larger flight decks; and improved Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment – will provide a significant boost to counter-drug efforts such as Operation Martillo and be a sound investment in homeland security.

The goals of Operation Martillo, said McPherson, are clear: “Pushing drug traffickers further offshore puts them at greater risk,” he said. “It makes their operations more costly for them, and just as importantly, it gives those countries, particularly in Central America, more breathing room, and less opportunity for these drug organizations to destabilize the region.”

This article first appeared in the Coast Guard Outlook 2012 Summer Edition.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...