Authorities in Colombia claim to have discovered a new method of trafficking illegal drugs, but it is not the only innovative smuggling technique being used by the country’s more sophisticated criminal groups.
On October 23, the Colombian Navy discovered 73 kilograms of cocaine submerged underwater and attached by rope to a docked Panamanian sailboat named “Solar Storm.” Divers recovered eight packages filled with cocaine and dead weights to keep the cargo from floating.
“This has revealed a new way of transporting narcotics by using the towing technique,” the Navy press release reads. “In this way, if the boat is intercepted by authorities, the package can be cut loose.”
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The seizure was made on Barú island near the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena. The boat captain, of Lithuanian nationality, was arrested.
Although Colombian authorities described this as a “new” method of transporting drugs, reports of trafficking by underwater towing have been circulating for several years.
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Colombian traffickers are using a range of advanced methods to slip tons of drugs past security controls along maritime routes, although InSight Crime’s research suggests that they have also held on to more traditional methods that do not sustain such heavy losses when intercepted.
The recent seizure in Cartagena is a less refined version of the near fail-safe “torpedo” technique. At an anti-narcotics police conference attended by InSight Crime, Navy Capt. George Rincón explained that this method involves filling a torpedo-shaped container — equipped with a buoy and GPS signal — with up to 7 metric tons of cocaine, and attaching it to the bottom of a boat using a cable. The vessel then departs with a number of other boats. If the one carrying the drugs is intercepted, it releases the underwater container, which is then recovered by another boat. This makes it extremely hard for authorities to catch traffickers red-handed. (See InSight Crime’s graphic below)
According to a 2014 Univision documentary, the “narco torpedo” method was developed in 2000 using a similar radio-transmitter and buoy set-up. Other variations include the soldering of drug-laden torpedoes to the bottom of freight ships, which night divers then collect once the vessel docks into port.
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Another low-risk, high-capacity option is the use of semi-submersibles, or “narco submarines,” which have been around since at least the 1990s. According to naval authorities, narco submarines departing from Colombia’s Pacific coast embark on a roundabout route that first takes them south, below and around Ecuador’s Galapagos islands, before heading north towards Central America and the United States. This presumably allows them to avoid detection technology in Colombian waters.
According to official statistics, however, the most commonly intercepted marine drug vessels are “go-fast” boats — an option that has been popular with South American drug traffickers for decades.
Speed boats have likely remained a transport method of choice because, although they can carry far less drugs, they are a cheaper option than submarines or torpedoes and require much less expertise when setting up shipments.
That said, Colombia’s seizure statistics probably do not directly reflect how most drugs are moved. In fact, according to anti-narcotics police consulted by InSight Crime in the northern port city of Santa Marta, hiding drugs on container ships remains the most widely used method by Colombian traffickers — at least along the Caribbean coast. The millions of freight containers departing from Colombian ports each year allow for huge amounts of drugs to be smuggled through security controls unnoticed.
At the same time, the fact that relatively few submarines are seized says a lot about the efficiency of this method in terms of evading interdiction. And given the steep initial investment but huge turnover of using torpedoes and submarines, these are likely to be among the favored methods for more sophisticated criminal organizations.
Colombian authorities have also told InSight Crime that they have detected other maritime trafficking techniques like “sea drones,” remote-controlled underwater torpedoes that are controlled by operatives on a nearby boat. By physically separating themselves from the drugs, traffickers can easily defy checks by security forces.