Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Maritime Drug Trafficking

How Changes in Technology Are Making It Harder to Nab the Bad Guys 

by Ashley Milburn

In 2010, the U.S.  Coast Guard seized just over 90 tons of cocaine destined for U.S.  shores, a haul valued at more than USD $3.5 billion.

However, in the multibillion-a-year U.S.  cocaine industry, the Coast Guard's interdiction rate accounts for only 26 per cent of the estimated 350 tons of cocaine arriving in the U.S.  each year; the sale of which supports both criminal and terrorist groups in Latin America and abroad.

The remaining supply, shipped from the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia through an intricate trafficking network that spans South, Central, and North America, is able to be delivered unhindered as a result of the traffickers' efforts to continually seek out more efficient and anonymous ways of transporting their product.

With large operating budgets, traffickers have proven their ability to develop and adopt new techniques that allow them to elude international maritime forces.  However, while the evolution of their technology is a hallmark of the cat-and-mouse game of maritime drug trafficking, the discovery of a fully submersible submarine in a clandestine jungle shipyard in Ecuador last July was deemed a game changer.

In the past 

Over the last 30 years, seafaring cocaine traffickers, who transport over 80 per cent of the cocaine arriving in the U.S., have made a living of finding ways to elude authorities.  In the late 1990s "go-fast" boats began to replace airplanes as the main means for moving cocaine through the Caribbean, the primary trans-shipment zone of the day.

At the time, the favoured mode of transportation, the twin-engine light plane, could only carry up to 700 kilograms of cocaine, while go-fast boats provided an opportunity to move at least three times that amount.  In addition, the fiberglass watercraft was capable of travelling up to 130 kilometres per hour and offered smugglers a speed advantage over the authorities.

Furthermore, with a price tag of $25,000, the boats were cheaper to acquire and operate than airplanes, and were considered to be a more disposable platform, an important characteristic given the fact that operators often scuttle their vessel after the shipment has been delivered.

However, the boats' large wakes made them easy to spot, and anti-drug agents, using helicopters and their own high-speed vessels - such as the Midnight Express speedboats that the U.S.  supplied to the Colombian Navy in 2005 - became far more adept at spotting and intercepting the traffickers' vessels.

By the year 2000 

By the turn of the century, Plan Colombia, the U.S.  effort to fight the illegal drug trade in the number one cocaine producing country, was introduced, leading to a shift in trafficking routes from the Caribbean to the lightly patrolled Pacific.

In addition to the geographic shift, less conspicuous vessels, such as cargo ships and fishing vessels, became increasingly common means of transporting cocaine.  Fishing vessels, usually equipped with sophisticated navigation and communication instruments, were popular as they did not require the type of refit work that would give away the vessel's role in smuggling operations, and allowed traffickers to transit long distances without attracting suspicion from authorities.

At the time, traffickers also became increasingly skilled at concealing their illicit cargo, hiding cocaine in compartments within fuel or ballast tanks, making it nearly impossible to locate the cache of drugs without emptying the fuel tanks - a move that violates U.S.  environmental laws - or dismantling the vessel in question.

Also, traffickers using non-commercial vessels, such as pleasure yachts, opted to make their voyages during peak times, such as civic holidays, allowing them to better blend in with legal maritime traffic.

In addition, the use of multiple at-sea transfers, decoy vessels and logistics supply ships increased during the early 2000s, adding more complexity to maritime trafficking routes and challenging interdiction forces.

In the last five years 

However, new rules implemented in 2007 that required fishing boats operating off of Colombia and Ecuador to carry GPS devices allowed police to better track vessel movements, and helped curb the number of commercial vessels being used by traffickers.  Additionally, the Container Control Program ( CCP ), a joint initiative by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Customs Organization, that minimize the risk of maritime containers being commandeered by traffickers began to achieve measurable results: in the first three years since CCP operations began at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador, almost 25 tons of cocaine were seized.

The increased surveillance of commercial vessels is what authorities believe led traffickers to change course yet again, this time heading below the surface.

The arrival of semi-submersibles 

In 2006, a U.S.  Coast Guard cutter spotted the first semi-submersible boat, nicknamed "Bigfoot", off the coast of Costa Rica.  Powered by a 300-horsepower diesel motor and travelling 18 inches below the surface at about 12 kilometres an hour, Bigfoot was a sign that traffickers were opting for stealth over speed to evade authorities.

The 60-foot fiberglass vessels, painted in various shades of blue to blend into the ocean, can travel undetected by the human eye or surveillance systems for up to 2,000 nautical miles.  The boat's tiny wake creates a negligible radar footprint, and because the exhaust is released through tubing below the surface and the boat has an upper lead shielding to minimize its heat signature, patrol aircraft are unable to rely on their heat-sensing equipment to locate the vessels.

Additionally, the boats, which are primarily built in jungle shipyards along the estuaries of Colombia's Pacific coast for approximately half a million dollars each, are capable of carrying up to 10 tons of cocaine.  This is a haul that garners a street value of up to $550 million, more than 1,000 times the cost of the vessel, making it a highly lucrative conveyance method.

As a result of their stealth and return on investment, authorities believed that up to 70 percent of the 480 tons of cocaine leaving Colombia's Pacific coast in 2008 was packed aboard semi-submersibles.

With the UN estimating an interdiction success rate of only 14 percent, Joint Interagency Task Force ( JIATF ) South, the Pentagon's anti-narcotics command centre, compared the task of patrolling for semi-submersibles to policing the entire United States with only three squad cars.

Policy changes 

In addition, authorities also faced legal challenges in stopping the vessels as crews were able to avoid prosecution by simply scuttling the craft and sinking the drugs if spotted.  However, in October 2008, a law passed by the U.S.  Congress outlawing the use of semi-submersibles in international waters unless registered with a state, made it possible for authorities to convict a boat's crew on the basis of visual evidence that they were manning the subs.

The following year, SOUTHCOM, the command responsible for all U.S.  military activity in South and Central America, reported a 46 percent decrease in the detection rate of semi-submersibles transiting the area, and the Colombian Navy only detected one semi-submersible in 2010, down drastically from 22 seizures in 2009.

The lower detection rate was seen by SOUTHCOM and other agencies as an indication that traffickers were adapting yet again.  However, it wasn't until July 2010, when the first fully functional, completely submersible "narco-sub" was discovered in an Ecuadorian jungle shipyard, that authorities' suspicions were confirmed.

Fully submerged 

A proper diesel-electric submarine like the one discovered in Ecuador has the option of shutting down its engines and submerging fully to run on batteries, at which time it becomes completely invisible on radar and infrared.  Such a capability means that interdiction forces can then only locate the sub by using sonar, which has a shorter range, is far less reliable, and requires the use of a greater number of assets.

In many ways, the move towards fully submersible submarines was an inevitable transition in the evolution of maritime drug trafficking technology.  The technology is not overly advanced but its advanced covert qualities follow the trend of traffickers opting for stealth over speed.

Given that most Western navies still maintain significant anti-submarine forces, drug traffickers may find themselves forced to adapt their maritime strategy once again.  While the Director of the U.S.  Drug Enforcement Agency for the Andean Region, Jay Bergman, described the narco-sub as the "final frontier" for the maritime drug smugglers, historical trends indicate nothing is impossible in the multi-billion dollar cocaine trafficking industry. 


URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v11/n065/a01.html
Newshawk: Herb
Votes: 0
Pubdate: Mon, 31 Jan 2011
Source: Lookout (CN BC)
Copyright: 2011 The Lookout
Contact: frontoffice@lookoutnewspaper.com
Website: http://www.lookoutnewspaper.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/1178
Author: Ashley Milburn
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/coke.htm (Cocaine)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

PIRATES Book Signing

Greg Cummings will be appearing at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, CA, Monday, October 6, at 7:30 PM, signing and reading from his new novel Pirates

Mysterious Galaxy is an independent genre bookstore that is passionate about creating and maintaining a community of readers, authors, and booksellers. Cummings is honored to be offered this opportunity to interact with his readers at such a respected and appreciated independent bookstore.  

Join Greg Cummings for an in-store author event that promises to deliver the magic and torment of the African savannah to SoCal.

Bring your family and friends. 

7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd
San Diego CA 92111
(858) 268 4747

Pirates is available in store and at the Mysterious Galaxy website