New Law for New Threat
Coast Guard efforts to combat drug smuggling in
semi-submersibles get boost from Interdiction Act
By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Assistant Editor
measure of success. The service set
records last fiscal year by seizing
367,926 pounds of cocaine with a
street value of about $4.9 billion.
As a result, drug traffickers have
been changing their tactics and
transportation methods, with hard-to-detect semi-submersibles capable
of carrying tons of illicit cargo proving a popular option.
“There is no viable, commercial
use for these vessels,” Adm. Thad
Allen, Coast Guard commandant,
told an audience at the Surface
Navy Association’s 21st National
Symposium Jan. 13. “If you are operating one, it’s for
Semi-submersibles, watercraft that operate with most
of the structure underwater, are designed to avoid being
detected by radar and can be dangerous to board for
inspection. They usually are spotted from the air as the
U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, Customs and Border Protection
and other national and international partners fly over.
On average, according to the Coast Guard, they are
40-80 feet long with roughly only 20 inches of the top
riding above water, just enough to take in oxygen and
release exhaust. They typically are made of composite
materials and have an engine, a rudimentary bridge and
crawlspaces that can accommodate up to four crewmen
and 5 tons or more of cargo. They cost approximately $2
million to build and have a range of 2,000 miles.
Before the Interdiction Act, suspects apprehended
in a semi-submersible could be charged under the
Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. However, when
applying the law, it was nearly impossible to detain
suspects if they dumped their illicit cargo overboard or
scuttled their vessel so that it could not be retrieved.
Without evidence of what the cargo was, the law dictated that the crew members be released unless they were
charged with some other offense.
Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008
More than a dozen suspects have been captured and charged
since the law passed in October.
■ If convicted, suspects could face a maximum penalty of 15
years in prison and a $1 million fine.
■ The law makes it illegal for anyone to operate or be in an unregistered, unflagged semi-submersible in international waters.
■ The swift passage of the law was hailed by service members
and law enforcement officials.
The Coast Guard’s newest weapon to counter
drug smuggling is a law passed in October, the
Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of
2008, that allows the service to detain and prosecute
suspected drug traffickers who use semi-submersible
vessels. The act makes it a federal felony to operate or
embark in an unregistered, unflagged submersible or
semi-submersible vessel in international waters.
Twelve suspects were arrested in late December and
early January in the Eastern Pacific and are being charged
under the law, with each facing a maximum penalty of 15
years in prison and a $1 million fine if found guilty.
“They often purposefully scuttle, or sink, their vessels, taking all the drugs down with them. That tactic
often prevents [the service] from recovering any
cocaine and, until this law was passed, prevented us
from prosecuting the suspects,” said Capt. Peter
Brown, chief of law enforcement at the Coast Guard’s
Seventh District in Florida.
“We were compelled to pick the suspected smugglers out of the water and return them to a safe port, as
if they were shipwrecked fishermen, which we all
knew was not true,” he said.
With cocaine trafficking on the upswing, the Coast
Guard has stepped up its enforcement efforts with some