A New Law Counters the Semisubmersible Smuggling Threat

By Kash, Douglas A.; White, Eli | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2010 | Go to article overview

A New Law Counters the Semisubmersible Smuggling Threat


Kash, Douglas A., White, Eli, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


During the past few years, the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities have seen the genesis and maturation of a relatively new technique for smuggling drugs into the country. Smugglers from South America have launched self-propelled semisubmersible (SPSS) vessels (alternatively referred to as a "low profile signature evading threat") operated by a small crew carrying vast quantities of cocaine. These submersibles typically deliver drugs to other vessels at sea and then are scuttled after offloading. Ultimately, the cargo is shipped via land routes into the United States. Indeed, in other applications, this method can potentially facilitate the covert delivery of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), terrorists, illegal aliens, and any other item or criminal small enough to fit in the vessel. One U.S. Coast Guard official has estimated that up to three SPSSs carry drugs along the Pacific coast each week. (1) The existing Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA) (2) had not adequately addressed this new method of transporting narcotics. Therefore, new tools were needed to counter this emerging threat.

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On October 13,2008, the president signed into law the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 (DTVIA). (3) This law was enacted in direct response to the use of SPSS vessels to transport vast amounts of illegal drugs through international waters to the United States. Congress has concluded that the growing use of these vessels is "a serious international problem, facilitating] trans-national crime, including drug trafficking, and terrorism, [as well as posing] a specific threat to the safety of maritime navigation and the security of the United States." (4) Accordingly, Congress passed the DTVIA, imposing criminal and civil penalties for the knowing operation, attempt, or conspiracy to operate a submersible or semisubmersible vessel that is without nationality in international waters, with the intent to evade detection. This law enables prosecutors to bring criminal charges in the United States even if the vessel and cargo were not recovered. Moreover, for a conviction under the law, the vessel need not be operating in a sovereign nation's territorial waters as long as the operators use the vessel or engage in a conspiracy to use an unflagged vessel with the intent to evade detection.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Problem

It is noted that other agencies in the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities have statistics and estimates that are different from the ones reported herein. On average, SPSS vessels range from 40 to 80 feet in length and are capable of carrying 4 crew members and more than 4-12 metric tons of drugs at a time. (5) In addition, they can travel at a speed of up to 13 knots and a distance of 2,500 nautical miles without having to refuel. (6) The vessels are specifically designed with low-signature wood and fiberglass construction to evade detection, thus making them incredibly difficult to identify. (7) The structure of an SPSS is purposely shaped to minimize the vessel's wake, while exhaust pipes are designed to minimize its thermal signature. In addition, it rides close to the surface, with approximately 1 foot of the craft showing above water, thus significantly reducing the likelihood of visual detection. (8) However, it is important to note that there is no single design or type of SPSS because they are built by more than one group in different locations and undergo continual design modifications.

Although SPSSs have proven to be incredibly difficult to detect and identify, law enforcement personnel have had some success in capturing crews and disrupting planned operations. One of the more audacious plans was discovered during a 2006 joint Italy-Colombia undercover operation in which agents found a half-built SPSS intended to transship drugs from Colombia to Italy. (9) It was estimated that the vessel, which cost 1 to 2 million dollars to construct and operate, was capable of carrying 10 tons of cocaine worth $500 million on the street. …

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