(U.S. government photo)
On Sept. 13 a Navy P-3 Orion spotted this self-propelled, semi submersible (SPSS) craft (above and below) off the west coast of Guatemala in the Pacific ocean. The Navy frigate USS McInerney closed in on the SPSS and launched a U.S. Coast Guard boarding team in a rigid inflatable boat. The four Colombians on the SPSS were surprised but opened the scuttling valves. The boarding team managed to get the valves closed and captured the SPSS and its cargo of seven tons of cocaine worth nearly $200 million. But the officer in charge of the Coast Guard boarding team said it was the most dangerous operation he had ever been on in his 11 years in the Coast Guard.
The U.S. government is trying to make it less dangerous for these boarding teams. At a press conference at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C. on September 19, a group of officials from the White House, Coast Guard, Defense Dept., Drug Enforcement Administration and Customs and Border Protection all said they hope Congress passes legislation to make it illegal to operate an SPSS. If that happens, the crews can be prosecuted (and encouraged to disclose information about how SPSSs are trying to penetrate U.S. maritime surveillance). Currently, drugs have to be seized to provide evidence for prosecution. And obviously going below decks in one of these smuggler craft to seize drugs when the SPSS may be rapidly sinking is a task Coast Guard boarding crews would prefer to avoid.
Since 2006 when SPSS interdictions began, U.S. Navy, Customs Border Protection and Coast Guard aircraft and surface ships (along with U.S. allies in some cases) have spotted and stopped nine of these craft. In a tenth case the cargo from an SPSS that was transferred to another type of vessel was then intercepted on the high seas. In all, the U.S. intercepted 71 metric tons of drugs valued at $2.1 billion. But in six of the nine cases where an SPSS was spotted, the vessel involved sank when the crew scuttled the boat. (In those instances the drugs were removed from the stream of illicit commerce but not seized). So the U.S. has captured a total of three of these specialized drug running craft. In addition to the one captured on Sept. 13 shown in these two photos, another one was captured earlier this year and a third in 2006.
Risky business! But with Congress poised this week to deal with the biggest financial system bailout in U.S. history it is doubtful the legislation pending in the House and Senate (including the Coast Guard reauthorization) will even get considered. Making it illegal to operate an SPSS may have to wait awhile longer.
(U.S. government photo)