Colombian Forces Discover Extra-Large Narco-Submarine

narco-sub USCG eastern pacific
File image: U.S. Coast Guard boarding team intercepts a much smaller narco-sub in the Eastern Pacific, 2017 (USCG file image)

Published Aug 10, 2020 2:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Last week, Colombian forces discovered an exceptionally large narco-submarine in the jungles of Buenaventura state, on Colombia's Pacific coast. 

The vessel, found on a tributary of the Naya River in the isolated village of Puerto Merizalde, measured fully 100 feet in length with a beam of 10 feet. By comparison, the transatlantic narcosub seized in Spain last year measured only 65 feet in length. The new discovery's 10:1 length-to-beam ratio is relatively slender for a vessel in this size range.

Colombian forces estimated that the boat could carry as much as eight tonnes of cocaine (an amount worth about $200 million wholesale) on a northbound journey in the Eastern Pacific. It may not have been the only vessel of the type built at that site: Colombian Army forces and investigators found machinery, diesel engines, generators, batteries and a significant amount of diesel fuel as well. 

So-called narco-subs are not fully submersible: they typically have a miniature "pilot house" on deck, along with an air intake and exhaust pipe for their engine, and they are built with very low freeboard. Some are designed and laden to operate with their decks awash, earning them the alternative moniker of "self-propelled semi-submersible." Due to their improvised construction and unknown stability characteristics, the U.S. Coast Guard treats them as hazardous craft during interdiction and boarding. 

Law enforcement pressure has increased in the busy drug trafficking zones of the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean in recent years, and the U.S.-led anti-trafficking task force responsible for the effort has reported a rising number of semi-submersible sightings as smugglers adapt to this new reality. Some also see the inventive trend as a potential model for military autonomous vessel design: the majority of these small, low-cost, low-observable, attritable vessels get through and deliver their cargoes, even in a high-surveillance environment.