Notified by the AMO, the Coast Guard intercepted the drug-laden craft 300 miles southwest of Panama in the Pacific Ocean; four suspects were arrested and taken into custody.
According to a government spokesman, “members of the Coast Guard were able to enter the vessel several times to recover contraband and evidence, including a loaded gun.”
The Coast Guard release and a release by the CBP on March 24 gave differing amounts for the cargo's value — varying between a high of $203 million and a low of $193.9 million. No matter which figure is used the seizure was still significant and represented a costly blow to the Colombian Cartel insiders believe was responsible for the shipment.
The CBP also said the craft became sank after it was intercepted and boarded but not before the bulk of its cargo was offloaded by law enforcement.
“Transnational organized crime groups continue to adjust their tactics to avoid detection indicated by a recent rise in the use of SPSS vessels,” Vice Adm. Charles Ray, commander of the Coast Guard Pacific Area, said in a release. US Coast Guardsmen approach a semi-submersible carrying drugs in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
(Photo courtesy US Coast Guard/Dvidshub)
According to Vice News who has long followed the issue, “Semi-submersibles used for smuggling are usually built to travel just below the surface, with just an exhaust pipe, a wheelhouse, and an air stack emerging from the water.” The vessels are usually made in Colombia and use camouflage to enhance their ability to avoid detection. Colombia has long been a major hub for cocaine production and distribution and over the past several decades, the U.S. has provided millions of dollars in aid for law enforcement including military grade helicopters and weaponry,
“In 2012, 80% of the illegal drugs smuggled to the US came on maritime routes, and 30% of the illegal drugs delivered to US shores via the sea were carried on Narco submarines, according to a 2014 study cited by Vice.”
Florida is considered a prime offloading destination for the Narc-subs due to its long and varied coastline. Florida has over 1300 miles of coastline second only to Alaska and is also in closer proximity to the Central and South America, where the drugs originate.
In early February, Air and Marines Operations agents captured a 2,300-pound shipment with an estimated value of $172 million. And in early March, CBP agents caught a 154-pound shipment off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, estimated to be worth over $2 million.
All together, Air and Marine Operations agents took part in 198 seizure, disruption, or interdiction efforts in their 42-million-square-mile operation zone — which spans the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.
This is the second semi-submersible to be intercepted by the Coast Guard since October of 2015. Another similar vessel was recently seized 280 miles southwest of the Mexico-Guatemala border. The suspects in the case were able to sink their craft, but the Coast Guard apprehended them at sea.
Despite losing the boat and some of the cargo, the CBP characterized the operation as a success. "Our crews will continue to take every opportunity to disrupt this type of transnational criminal activity," said John Wassong, the director of the National Air Security Operations Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.
This latest interception represents the fifth semi-submersible vessel captured by the Coast Guard since June 2015. So far since October of last year, the Coast Guard operating in tandem with the DEA and CBP agents in a joint military law enforcement task force, have seized 201,000 pounds of cocaine.
US Customs and Border Patrol on a semi-submersible “Narco-Sub” transporting drugs was captured at sea last year by US agents, but it sank before it could be fully unloaded. (Photo US Coast Guard)