The Rise of the Narco Navy

June 15, 2012 7:59 PM - Updated: February 5, 2013 1:24 PM

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.

The most basic surface combatant utilized by the narco navy is the old-fashioned and dependable go-fast boat. Familiar to viewers of Scarface and Miami Vice, the go-fast boat is typically between 25 and 45 feet in length and mostly travels at night. An typical go-fast boat contains one to two tons of Colombian cocaine and typically complete a coke run in one day. Go-fast boats are occasionally augmented by slower craft such as Mexican “panga” boats—small fishing boats used to transport marijuana from Mexico’s Pacific coast to California.

But the narco navy is hardly limited to surface operations. Drug smugglers have their own silent service in the narco-subs. So what are narco-subs? These craft range from cheap, self-propelled semi-submersibles that move product over short distances to submarines with periscopes capable of traveling from South America to the United States. Narco-submarines have been discovered in Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and other regions of the Americas. They augment the fast-boast force through their ability to clandestinely transport drugs and evade detection.

Narco-subs, while primitive compared with advanced Western navies, are nothing to be scoffed at. They have long since evolved from the disposable water coffins utilized in the 1990s to supersubs that operate out of clandestine pens along the Colombian coastline. One narco-sub contained up to 10,000 pounds of cocaine and was equipped with global positioning systems. Another sub was 74 feet long, with twin propellers and a 5-foot conning tower. Of course, not all narco-subs are sophisticated, as smaller subs capable of transporting lesser loads shorter distances continue to be employed.

How do the United States and its partners cope with narco-subs and go-fast boats? Some of the same principles of data fusion, collaboration, and synchronization that Norman Friedman dubbed “picture-centric warfare” in warfighting come into play when interdicting the narco navy. The United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has invested in the use of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools as well as nontraditional organizations like the Joint Interagency Task Force South that share information throughout the U.S. government.

The United States has also significantly internationalized the drug war. The U.S., Canadian, Central American, and European joint anti-illicit trafficking campaign Operation Martillo is one of SOUTHCOM’s key tools for combating drug smuggling. With 14 countries participating, Martillo netted 119 metric tons of cocaine with a wholesale value of $2.35 billion. Because of the problem’s sheer scale, decisive operations against drug traffickers are only possible with international cooperation.

Martillo, however, is only one segment in a larger American set of regional security initiatives in the Americas. In Mexico, cooperation against drug cartels occurs under the framework of the Merida Initiative. Extensive American civilian and military assistance has also resumed in a Central America increasingly buffeted by fierce drug-related crime and violence. Just as naval operations ultimately are aimed at influencing events on land, the U.S. contest with the narco navy augments and supports land-based operations.

As long as drugs are profitable, traffickers will invest in more elaborate ways to evade the military and law enforcement. The presence of submarines themselves are operational responses to the tightening of the net around the Caribbean. This does not mean, however, that the United States and allies cannot raise the cost of operating with sophisticated ISR systems, intelligence-sharing, and collaborative and flexible organizations that ensure the right people have the information necessary for detection and interdiction. What it does mean is that drugs will continue to be smuggled—overland and at sea—by truck and by submarine.

Adam Elkus

Adam Elkus is a PhD student at American University. He blogs at Abu Muquwama, CTOVision and Information Dissemination on strategy, technology and international politics.

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