Facing stepped up drug interdiction efforts on the Pacific coast, Colombian cocaine smugglers appear to be shifting tactics, attempting to use semi-submersible vessels in the Caribbean Sea to transport their illicit cargo.
On Monday, the US Coast Guard announced that it had intercepted 15,000 pounds of cocaine – worth $180 million – in a semi-submersible vessel intercepted two weeks ago off the coast of Honduras.
The submarine-like boats have been used with increasing frequency in recent years to transport multi-ton quantities of cocaine up the Pacific coast from Colombia. The seizure off the east coast of Honduras marks the first time such a vessel has been seen in the Caribbean, officials said.
The semi-submersible vessels are believed to have been constructed on the banks of jungle rivers in Colombia. They are built of fiberglass and wood, and designed to sit low in the water to avoid radar detection. The boats are painted to blend in with the sea surface. They have no registration numbers, no identifying insignia, and no running lights. Most important, they are built with scuttling valves that allow the captain and crew to sink the vessel within moments of being detected by authorities.
The idea is to destroy the evidence in deep international waters and allow the Coast Guard to provide the wet captain and crew a ride to safety.
That was apparently the plan on July 13 when Coast Guard officials in a helicopter and pursuit boat approached the semi-submersible vessel in the Caribbean. Within moments of the contact, the crew emerged onto open deck of the boat. Three crew members got into an inflatable raft. The remaining crew members were taken aboard the Coast Guard pursuit boat.
Officials recovered two cocaine packages from the boat as it was sinking and one other package that floated to the surface after it sank.
The captain and crew were taken aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca to be turned over to law enforcement officials in the US.
The Seneca, several other Coast Guard Cutters, the Honduran Navy, and Federal Bureau of Investigation dive teams began a search to locate the sunken vessel and recover its cargo. The boat went down in 100 feet of water. Officials used portable sonar equipment and found the boat on July 26 after a 10-hour search, officials said.
Once the boat was found, divers recovered the cocaine cargo.
Although the Coast Guard was able to recover drug evidence in the Caribbean interdiction, that hasn’t always been the case. In the Pacific, often by the time the Coast Guard arrives on scene, the boat and its cargo are gone.
Concerned about this tactic, Congress in 2008 passed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act. The measure made it unlawful to be the captain or crew on an unregistered semi-submersible vessel in international waters with the intent to evade detection.
Under the DTVIA, it is no longer necessary for interdicting authorities to try to obtain a part of the sinking vessel’s illicit cargo to facilitate prosecution in a US court. The mere presence of a semi-submersible vessel attempting to evade detection in international waters is a violation of US law.
Defense lawyers have challenged the DTVIA as an unconstitutional extension of US legal authority to regulate criminal activity on the high seas. At least three cases have been prosecuted in Florida, with convictions in each case. Crew members have been sentenced to nine years in prison.
Convictions in all three cases have been upheld at the Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals.