Somali pirates and Iranian irregular warfare craft are well known to naval audiences, but the narco navy deserves equal infamy for its drug-smuggling operations in the Americas. Both crude self-propelled semi submersibles and full makeshift submarines are complicating drug interdiction in the Americas. The United States and international partners have responded with network-centric surveillance, tracking, and interdiction efforts, but seaborne interdiction operations are ultimately adjuncts to the more expansive interdiction missions conducted on the U.S.-Mexican border itself and the counternarcotics operations run throughout Central and Latin America by the U.S. military and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1970s, the United States and its partners have sunk vast sums into detecting, interdicting, and deterring drug smuggling. But, as rapper Rick Ross observed, drug smugglers consider “being dead broke [as] the root of all evil.” The mind-boggling sums of money available to those who can supply product to the hemisphere’s biggest drug market is more than enough to convince drug lords and their agents to risk imprisonment, injury, and death. How much money? By 2009 estimates (the latest available), Mexican and Colombian cartels rake in $39 billion in wholesale drug profits annually. Depending on where you live in the U.S., a kilo of cocaine sells for between $34,000 to $120,000. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards.
The primary battlespaces in the drug war are the “plazas,” a set of heavily contested drug-trafficking routes in northern Mexico. Cartels spill blood and cut off heads for control of the plazas, but the Caribbean trafficking routes are no less important. By utilizing small craft and “narco-subs,” drug smugglers make it more difficult and expensive for the US to interdict them. The narco navy also heavily exploits capability gaps among American partners that lack American manpower and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.