Drug enforcement officials are scratching their heads over how to combat the latest innovation in drug smuggling: radar-dodging semisubmersible vessels packed with tons of cocaine.
Two years ago, U.S. counter-drug surveillance spotted only three semisubmersibles, but that rose to 40 last year and could reach 120 before 2008 is done. But spotting them is easier than catching them.
Only eight have been intercepted in the past 15 months — one captured and the others scuttled. Colombian officials have nabbed seven empty craft on land before they were loaded with drugs.
Meanwhile, as the armada grows, the amount of cocaine seized by authorities dropped 25 percent last year — 208 tons, down from 257 tons in 2006.
"As the drug cartels adapt, we need to get ahead of their thinking — we have to be innovators ourselves," said Adm. James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami. "We need wide area surveillance systems, acoustics, and better intelligence tools to stop this emerging pattern of smuggling."
The low profile of the custom-built vessels, which cut through the water at wave height, makes them hard to detect on radar. Sometimes they hide in the shadow of fishing boats.
The vessels are designed and built in Colombia; officials there recently uncovered a clandestine shipyard deep in the jungle.
U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen believes the semisubmersibles are a response to the United States' tactic of using snipers in helicopters to shoot out engines of the speedboats, long the smugglers' preferred means of transport. The submersibles' engines are harder to hit as they are wrapped in steel casing below the water line.
"They stay just enough above the water to obtain air for the engines and the crew," said Zachary Mann, of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Usually staffed by a two- or three-man crew, and able to carry up to 10 tons of cocaine at a time, they can plough through the sea at about 8 mph with a range of up to 2,000 miles, according to officials at Southern Command.
U.S. counter-drug surveillance efforts rely on advanced "over the horizon" ground and airborne radar systems, including Customs' long-range P-3 Orion aircraft flying out of Jacksonville and Corpus Christi, Texas.
"They are really the eyes and ears in the sky," said Mann. "We can see a lot with them. They can really reach out and touch someone."
When a suspicious craft is detected, U.S. Coast Guard cutters are deployed to the scene to give chase.
The sudden surge in numbers signaled that traffickers had switched tactics, say analysts.
"What this shows is a real onslaught in the use of this new technology," said Bruce Bagley, a drug expert at the University of Miami. "It makes you wonder how many are making it to their destination."
The U.S. Coast Guard made the first seizure of a semisubmersible in November 2006. It was captured 90 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Officials dubbed it "Bigfoot" — the existence of such craft had been rumored, but no one had actually seen one.
In August 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted another off the coast of Guatemala and arrested the crew after they scuttled the 50-foot-long vessel, estimated to be transporting 5.5 tons of cocaine.
One analyst described the vessels, estimated to cost $1-million to $2-million each, as 21st century "ironclads," referring to the steel-hulled warships of the Civil War.
"Somebody has made a huge investment in the manufacturing of them," said Adam Isacson, an expert on U.S. drug policy in Colombia at the Center for International Policy. "But the profit margins are so high this doesn't eat into them so deeply."
Prosecution of crews from scuttled vessels is hard because of the lack of drug evidence. So, the Coast Guard is seeking legislation that would make the use of "unflagged" semisubmersibles in international waters punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
"There's really no legitimate use for a vessel like this," says Allen, of the Coast Guard.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.