How Go-Fast Vessels have Revolutionized Narco Maritime Operations

Panga vessels play a critical role in the maritime trafficking routes that span from South America to North America and the Caribbean.
U.S. Army Major Brenda Fiegel, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas | 12 July 2018

Transnational Threats

Panga go-fast captured by Costa Rican Coast Guard in international waters off the eastern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. (Photo: Costa Rica’s National Costa Guard Service)

Authorities in Latin America face a constant and ever evolving battle with drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in the sense that smuggling garners multi-billion dollar profits for these groups yearly. In turn, the profits are utilized by DTOs to do things that would be unimaginable to the normal citizen because of monetary constraints. For example, DTOs operating in virtually any country can purchase their “right to operate freely” by paying off law enforcement and government personnel in exchange for multi-faceted favors and protections.

Another benefit that comes with a never-ending cash flow is the ability to build highly advanced trafficking vessels that are used to move maritime shipments from South America to profitable markets in the United States and Europe. What is most noteworthy about the vessels used by DTOs is that, although they have evolved over the last two decades, tried and true vessels such as pangas retrofitted into go-fast vessels are still a staple part of any cartel’s maritime trafficking arsenal.

Brief history of the panga

The original panga gained popularity in the 1960s in countries around the world at which time they were primarily used for fishing. However, the panga-style boat can be easily retrofitted into what is known in the drug trafficking world as a go-fast boat because of its design. As discussed by Boating Magazine in its issue of August 2017, the original panga model was built out of wood, but with the passage of time, producers realized that fiberglass versions could be mass-produced quickly and cheaply from molds rather than crafted from wood. Furthermore, the fiberglass models proved to be incredibly durable and could handle multiple outboard engines allowing them to move more quickly.

For drug traffickers, Inside Costa Rica points out that the fiberglass addition alone is significant as it provides go-fast vessels the ability to evade radar detection. Additionally, the newest fiberglass models are constructed completely out of fiberglass, whereas only the hulls of traditional go-fast boats were made of this material. The use of fiberglass is important for several reasons, but mainly because it is difficult for radars to detect.

Second, the newer versions are lighter, faster, and more spacious than the typical refurbished go-fast boat. For example, when comparing the time it takes for a refurbished go-fast and a fiberglass go-fast to make the same trip, the latter is two times faster. Finally, newer versions consume less gas meaning that logistical refueling stops are not necessary in some cases.

Additional attributes of drug trafficking go-fast pangas

Pangas utilized for drug trafficking purposes are generally equipped with GPS, satellite communications systems, and night vision equipment. Another important feature of drug trafficking pangas is that they are painted blue, black, or green in their interior to better camouflage themselves in open sea. Because of the paint color, if the crew members of a go-fast notice maritime or aerial patrols, they simply turn off their motors and cover the entire vessel with a blue tarp which has proved to be very successful because even at a very close distance, they are nearly undetectable. 

The design of these vessels is also important as they are versatile, and have good stability in both deep and shallow water. Furthermore, Colombian daily Semana reports that they can be out-fitted with multiple (anywhere from two-five) 250-300HP engines allowing them to travel up to 50-60 miles per hour in ideal sea conditions.

Another feature of newer pangas is something known as the Delta pad which is a flat, slightly concave running surface that extends along the keel. This feature is approximately two inches wide towards the bow and about sixteen at the transom. It is beneficial to drug traffickers as it allows them to quickly pull their vessel from the ocean, into shallow waters, and onto the beach for a fast offload.

Furthermore, the pad, combined with the narrow beam, influences the boat’s sea-keeping abilities. This means that the boat pops onto plane almost instantly and skips on top of a bay chop rather than cutting through it. For drug trafficking purposes, this is key because the hollowed out interiors of these vessels can carry up to 1,5 tons or more of cocaine in a single shipment and if the narrow beam and pad employed into newer models would chop through the water, it could potentially cause the panga to tip or become unstable.

Go-fast pangas have been around for decades, but they will likely continue to be a mainstay for DTOs because of factors such as speed, versatility and cost. They are also difficult to detect at high sea and can often outrun patrol vessels utilized by law enforcement entities in Central America. In closing, the go-fast panga looks like it is here to stay no matter what model it is; fiberglass or more traditional. What we can expect is that DTOs will find additional means to make these vessels more effective and harder to detect.

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