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Drug lords have been moving their wares undetected, underwater

Drugs and submarines don't always have to be a bad combination. (Image: Yellow Submarine)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Narco-submarines

What it’s about: As it turns out, people really, really, really like drugs. The trade for cocaine is profitable enough that its sellers will go to incredible lengths to bring the white powder to market without being caught by the long arm of the law. One such length is the narco-sub, a submarine designed to smuggle drugs underwater—usually from Colombia to Mexico—away from prying eyes.

A sub seized by Ecuadorian authorities. The camouflage paint is to make the sub more difficult to spot from the air. (Photo: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Strangest fact: The earliest subs were only semi-submersible. As early as 1993, drug runners were building ships that mostly sat underwater, but could not dive, and had an exposed above-water cockpit. The technology has improved dramatically in the years since, and modern-day narco-subs can submerge as much as 20 meters deep, and have amenities like a conning tower for a periscope and air conditioning (though quarters are still cramped, so as to leave as much room as possible for cargo).


Biggest controversy: Ten years ago, authorities estimated between 25 and 40 subs left Colombia each year, but the practice steadily grew. The Department Of Homeland Security now believes roughly a third of “maritime cocaine flow” happens underwater. Traffickers have set up elaborate systems to protect the subs, with innocent-seeming fishing boats set up along their route to resupply and warn of incoming patrols. The sub pilots are often local fisherman as well. While a single sub can carry several tons of cocaine, worth over $100 million per trip, pilots are generally paid around $3,000, and that’s if they don’t get caught.

A fiberglass sub seized by the Coast Guard in 2007. Fiberglass is almost undetectable by sonar or radar. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Most of the subs only make a one-way trip. Despite generally taking a year to construct and costing up to $2 million, most narco-subs are scuttled (i.e., sunk) once their cargo is unloaded. A return trip doubles the risk of being caught, and the profits are so great from a trip, even a million-dollar sub can be written off as a one-time expense. When smugglers are caught, standard procedure is also to scuttle the ship, sending the evidence to the bottom of the sea.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Maritime law used to let undersea traffickers off the hook. When smugglers were caught, a ship loaded down with several tons of cocaine tended to sink very quickly when scuttled. The Coast Guard or other authorities are obligated to rescue sailors from a sinking vessel, but with no evidence, were once unable to charge narcotraffickers with a crime. In 2008, this was rectified with the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act, which made simply operating a “self-propelled semi-submersible” illegal, if it’s not claimed by any country and sailed “with the intent to evade detection.” Colombia also laid down a 12-year prison sentence to anyone caught building a narco-sub.

I smell a sequel! (Screenshot: Breaking Bad/Image: Mike Vago)

Also noteworthy: Unmanned submersibles might be the future of drug smuggling. In 2005, authorities discovered a torpedo-shaped cargo container, designed to be towed by another boat. The apparent plan was to have an innocent-seeming fishing boat tow the torpedo underwater. If a patrol ship approached, the torpedo could be dropped. In a Walter White-worthy twist, the torpedo would release a buoy, disguised as driftwood, and contain an encrypted location transmitter so it could be retrieved later.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Drug traffickers aren’t just homing in on the navy’s turf. There’s also such a thing as a narco tank, a steel-plate-armored SUV or semi truck designed for battle with authorities and rival gangs in the Mexican Drug War.

Further down the Wormhole: While most narco-subs travel from Colombia to Mexico, the actual drugs generally continue overland to users in the United States. It’s been said of the U.S. that our only truly original art forms are jazz and comic strips, and one of our all-time greatest in the latter category was Krazy Kat. We’ll look at the immortal tale of cat, mouse, and brick next week.


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