Evolving Maritime Threats

Narcotraffickers Shift Methods and Use Technology to Avoid Regional Interdiction Efforts
WRITER-ID | 1 January 2011

Members of U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement seized a self-propelled semisubmersible in September 2008 containing almost 7 tons of cocaine. It was found about 350 miles west of Guatemala in the Pacific Ocean. [Petty Officer 1st Class Nico Figueroa /U.S. Nav y]

The methods and technology employed by narcotraffickers in avoiding detection in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean Sea are always changing. Clever new schemes include cocaine-stuffed surfboards that carry drugs into the U.S. off the Pacific coast, liquid heroin packets surgically implanted inside dogs, cocaine molded into discs that look like Pringles potato chips and multiconsignment contraband, according to José Corraliza, instructor at the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program. Corraliza was among the experts speaking at the 2010 Maritime Surveillance Latin America conference in Miami. The forum was organized by the Institute for Defense and Global Advancement.

Another speaker, Rear Adm. William Baumgartner, Commander of the 7th U.S. Coast Guard District, explained how drugs flow from South America to the U.S., Mexico and Europe and how drug money flows from these destinations into South America. Illicit maritime trafficking in this region is not limited to drugs, he explained. It also includes trafficking of undocumented migrants bound for the U.S. from Cuba and Mexico, another maritime security threat.


Narcotraffickers are using technology in more ways than ever before. Advanced vessels are now the preferred form of transport in moving drugs and money shipments undetected. Currently, the most commonly used trafficking vessel is the self-propelled semisubmersible, or SPSS. These vessels vary in length from 12 to 24 meters and have a minimal amount of hull, typically 46 centimeters, exposed above the water line, according to the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, an international multiagency task force based at Naval Air Station Key West in Florida.

In the past, SPSS vessels used three or four engineNATIONS FIGHT BACKs for speed, but as authorities used this fact to profile vessels for interdiction, traffickers shifted tactics. They began using one or two engines, said conference speaker Ted Venable, a counter illicit trafficking program manager for the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and U.S. Fourth Fleet. The State Department reported that the use of SPSS vessels has doubled from year to year, and they can now hold $10 million to $100 million worth of cargo. Corraliza, the counterterrorism instructor, said the vessels are often made of fiberglass, wood, steel and composites and they take between 90-120 days to build in hidden jungle “factories” set up by traffickers. Use of these materials makes radar detection difficult and increases the maritime security threat. International naval consultant Norman Friedman said at the conference that SPSS vessels emit a limited amount of radar energy or electromagnetic energy, rendering them invisible to modern technology. This reduced radar signature and their limited, or absent, radio frequency limits detection techniques to surveillance by coast guard planes and boats patrolling the waters.

A top concern for maritime security experts who spoke to Diálogo at the forum is the evolution from semisubmersibles to fully submersible vessels. U.S. Navy Capt. Pete Husta spoke of how SPSS vessels have increasingly been replaced by self-propelled fully submersibles, or SPFS. At an estimated cost of $2 million each, SPFS vessels are more costly to manufacture and they require more technology and training for the users, according to Friedman. These factors increase risks to personnel and their profits, and may deter narcotraffickers from using SPFS. However, Friedman worries about the prospect of drone-type semisubmersibles, which he said can be remote-controlled and could theoretically be used to bring weapons of mass destruction to major ports. Colombian police, quoted in a June 2009 article in The Washington Post, reported that traffickers are attempting to build these drone semisubmersibles, but to date there are no media reports to confirm they are in operation.


To counter these new maritime threats, nations in the region are combining forces and technology and implementing new regulations. One example is the Joint Caribbean Operation, a partnership between Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and the U.S. government. The Royal Bahamas Police and the Turks and Caicos Police forces work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Army, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security and Department of State in the largest and oldest cooperative international drug enforcement effort, according to the U.S. State Department website. The effort uses emerging technology such as Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to track and conduct overhead surveillance. Bahamian and U.S. governments receive streaming imagery to assist them in interdiction efforts. They can then notify local authorities or joint forces to halt the illicit activity. “This is not an aircraft used for spying on people, it does not look into windows, and it does not do the kind of spying that people think,” Michael Kostelnik, assistant commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine unit, said of the technology. “It is tracking a car [that received drugs from a boat] that we know has narcotics in it somewhere in the island and telling law enforcement where it is.”

The implementation of standardized regulations and sharing of technology are additional tools that help integrate regional drug interdiction efforts. The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, developed by the International Maritime Organization and its member states, supports security efforts by listing conditions of entry, and requiring a notice of arrival from vessels. Scan systems like the automatic identification system and long-range identification assist governments in tracking their nation’s vessels and allow for international authorities to exchange data. Because suspect actors do not adhere to these regulations, they are singled out in these screenings.


A new approach that brings together regional personnel expertise, technology and regulations is the Virtual Regional Maritime Traffic Center of the Americas, or VRMTC-A, a Web-enabled system of shipping data. Partner nations exchange shipping vessel tracking data and communicate through multiple platforms within one system. Nations that share information within this system include Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Uruguay. These partners contribute tracking information of vessels registered to their nations and are able to view their counterparts’ contributions in real time. This common operating picture can track 52,000 to 56,000 ships within 24 hours. The site has collaborative Web 2.0 tools such as chats with an automatic translator for English, Spanish, French and Portuguese; wikis; blogs; and forums. All of these capabilities are available to current partner nations, as well as a newly-formed community of interest to participate or collaborate on the socialnetworking site All Partners Access Network, known as APAN. Despite the accessibility, the VRMTC-A is not currently used by as many participants as it could support, said Rick Arias of the Science, Technology and Experimentation division at U.S. Southern Command. The VRMTC-A and multiple regional efforts contribute to maritime surveillance and overall improved security in Latin America and the Caribbean. The governments of the region are strengthening their collaboration and in turn increasing maritime surveillance and providing more security in the Americas.

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