Tag Archives: narco sub

Classic Maritime Imagery

If you don’t think this is beautiful, what are you even doing here?

Official caption: “The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf (WMSL 750) sails under the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge while returning to Coast Guard Base Alameda, Calif., following a 77-day counter-narcotics patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Dec. 3, 2022.”

(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew West)

Bertholf, one of four new and advanced frigate-sized Ingalls-built 418-foot Legend-class national security cutters homeported in Alameda capable of extended, worldwide deployment, performed multiple boardings of suspected drug-smuggling vessels while patrolling international waters off the coasts of Central and South America while coordinated by JIATF-S, which led to the detainment of multiple suspected drug smugglers and the interdiction of more than 1,050 pounds of cocaine.

The largest interdiction during the patrol was a joint effort between the Bertholf and the El Salvadorian Coast Guard. The crews worked together to interdict a 60-foot low-profile vessel (LPV), aka “narco sub.” 

A U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf (WMSL 750) boarding team approach a low-profile vessel after conducting law enforcement operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Oct. 18, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Oliver Fernander).

A crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf (WMSL 750) inspect a low-profile vessel while conducting law enforcement operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Oct. 18, 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Oliver Fernander).

While underway, for the first time in two years, Bertholf’s crew conducted a fueling at sea (FAS) off the coast of San Diego with the U.S. Navy. She also supported fast-roping qualifications for the Coast Guard’s Maritime Security Response Team-West (MSRT-W) personnel, an elite counter-terrorism unit that does lots of cool guy stuff.


Dubbed either self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS) or low-profile vessels (LPVs), “narco subs” have gone from being a unicorn type of thing discussed only in Clive Cussler books to the real deal, especially when it comes to the Eastern Pacific, where they seem to be the vessel of choice running coke from South America to transshipment points in Central America.

Since they first started popping up in 2006, these craft have become an almost weekly thing in the past few years. The USCG and SOUTHCOM assets stopped almost 40 such boats in 2019, this number continued into 2020 where, across four days in mid-May Southcom stopped three narco submarines in the same week (remember the “Alto su barco” incident?), and showed no sign of stopping if you look at the typical patrols done by cutters throughout 2021-22.

Almost every recent EastPac patrol by the Coast Guard (or Fourth Fleet with a USCG LEDET aboard) shows off images of an LPV stopped with a gleaming white cutter in the background.

USCGC Northland (WMEC 904) interdicts a low-profile vessel in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in August 2021. The Northland crew returned to Portsmouth Monday, following an 80-day patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in support of the Coast Guard Eleventh District and Joint Interagency Task Force South. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

This translates into a whole series of art produced as part of the U.S. Coast Guard Art Collection in the past few years on the subject:

Tall Ship Getting it Done

The buque escuela BAE Guayas (BE-21) is a 1,300-ton Class A Tall Ship operated by the Ecuadorian Navy. Built in Spain in the 1970s to a design similar to the circa 1930s Blohm & Voss segelschulschiffs (like Gorch Fock, USCGC Eagle, and the NRP Sagres) she is a direct sistership to the training ships Gloria (Colombia), Simón Bolívar (Venezuela), and Cuauhtémoc (Mexico).

A steel-hulled three-masted barque capable of hoisting 15,200 sq. ft. of canvas with a 700hp Detroit diesel “steel topsail” for when the wind is calm, she is beautiful, akin to a flying cloud on the water.

With a crew of some 155, she can carry 80 naval cadets and is frequently used in trips overseas to show the country’s flag and has visited over 60 countries in the past 40 years, cruising in excess of 500,000 miles on 30 training cruises from Vladivostok to Boston.

However, she is still a naval vessel, with a small arms locker, and capable of conducting real-world missions in required. Case in point, she just popped a narco sub roaming in the Eastern Pacific.

The tall ship’s crew boarded the vessel, impounded a cargo of moody blow, and arrested four including three Ecuadorians and a Colombian.

All in a day’s work.

Bravo Zulu, Guayas.

Not bad for a narcosubmarino

Spanish authorities arrested two citizens of Ecuador near the beach of O Foxo, Galicia on 24 November. Their ride? A scuttled 66-foot narco submarine carrying over three tons of coke. It is believed to be the first such craft to be seized from Latin America in Europe.

The Guardia Civil is currently trying to figure out if it was launched from a mother ship or made the entire journey on its own. Keep in mind that it is roughly 5,000 miles from the northeast tip of South America to Spain in a straight line. With an average speed of about 10 knots, said narco boat likely took more than three weeks to make a solo crossing only to be seen at the end of its run after things didn’t work out.

Meanwhile, the USCG recently popped a similar such craft in the Eastern Pacific, where they are increasingly common. How long before these are seen in asymmetric warfare by users carrying dirty bombs into a vital port or chokepoint?


U.S. Coast Guard boarding team members climb aboard a suspected smuggling vessel in September. Crews intercepted a drug-laden, 40-foot self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) in the Eastern Pacific carrying approximately 12,000 pounds of cocaine, worth over $165 million and apprehended four suspected drug smugglers. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

All tricks, no treats: Coasties chalk up another sneaky narco sub, making 43 total

The Alameda, California-based USCGC Waesche (WMSL-751), one of the new 418-foot Legend-class National Security Cutters, offloaded 39,000 pounds of cocaine Thursday at Naval Base San Diego– including a large bust from a narco sub.

The self-propelled semi-submersible, or SPSS, was stopped in the Pacific Ocean off Central America on September 6.

Upon sighting the vessel, the cutter launched two fast pursuit boats with boarding teams and an armed helicopter crew to interdict the SPSS. Five suspects, apprehended by the Coasties (where are you going to go in open ocean?) attempted to scuttle the dope boat as water filled the smuggler to just below the helm.

Waesche crew members boarded the sinking vessel and were able to dewater it using portable pumps, allowing boarding officers to safely remove over 5,600 pounds of cocaine from the SPSS. It is the sixth such submersible captured this year by the service and the 43rd total.

According to a fact sheet from the service, Coast Guardsmen apprehended a total 585 suspected drug smugglers in Fiscal Year 2016– a new record for the service, up from 503 suspected drug smugglers last year.

Rum subs of the bootlegger era

Today we have narco subs (self-propelled semi-submersibles, or  SPSSs) to deal with but they are an idea that is almost a century old.

The Volstead Act in 1919 came at a time of technological innovation and, with a lot of Great War era soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of work, some quickly fell into the quick and easy field of bootlegging. While there were plenty of overland smugglers, rum row operations where speedboats (often powered by surplus Liberty aircraft engines) zipped up and down the coast, and some aerial smuggling, there also seems to be at least some evidence of submarine ops.

Some were apparently large scale as related in Smugglers, Bootleggers and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City by Ellen NicKenzie Lawson, which contains a 1924 aerial photo, purporting to show rum-smuggling submarines in the Hudson River near Croton Point.


The photo appears in the chapter “Rum Row”—the name of the smuggling area of the Atlantic coast from Nantucket to New York City and New Jersey. Lawson writes:

“News of a submarine being used on Rum Row appears to have some substance to it. One smuggler testified in court that he saw a submarine emerge on the Row with a German captain and a French crew. Newspapers in 1924 reported that submarines were smuggling liquor to New Jersey and Cape Cod. An aerial photo, taken by a commercial Manhattan map-making firm that same year, suggested submarines were thirty miles up the Hudson River near Croton Point. (German submarines were kept out of the river during World War I by a steel net strung low across the bottom of the Narrows.) The photo purported to document two submarines below the surface of the Hudson River, each 250 feet long [as big as a German Type U-93 class boat or a UE-II minelaying sub] and 600 feet apart. The aerial firm sent the photograph to the U.S. Navy, which had no submarines in the area, and the startling image was given to Coast Guard Intelligence and filed away.”

A firearms blog also contends that, “During prohibition a syndicate of bootleggers operating out of Puget Sound somehow managed to acquire a World War I German U-Boat.  They used the submarine to smuggle booze from Canada to Seattle.”

This is backed up by newspaper reports of the time (see The Evening Independent – Feb 16, 1922)


As Roy Olmstead, the “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers,” was very well connected and financed, it may have been theoretically possible.

So there is that.

The only thing is that at this time the U.S. Navy (as well as those of France, Britain and Italy) were really stingy with selling surplus subs to the public with the exception of established ship breakers and other subs that may seem like there were floating around on the open market just weren’t.

Former Warship Wednesday alumni, the obsolete Lake-built submarine USS USS O-12 (SS-73) was stricken after being laid up during Prohibition and was soon leased for $1 per year (with a maximum of five years in options) to Lake’s company for use as a private research submarine– as far as I can tell the first time this occurred. But, as part of the lease agreement, she was disarmed and had to be either returned to the Navy or scuttled in at least 1,200 feet of water at the conclusion of her scientific use.

Further, in 1919 the Allied powers agreed that Germany’s immense U-boat fleet should be surrendered without the possibility of return and, while some boats were kept for research, the majority were dismantled and recycled or gesunken in deep water in the 20s. Of course, there is always the possibility that a scrapper may have resold a scratch and dent U-boat for the right price, but good luck keeping that quiet as subs of the era had to spend most of their time on the surface and most certainly would have been noticed by some busy body.

Then there is the crew, and a former bluejacket or unterseeboot driver who worked on such a project–providing he didn’t wind up in Davy Jones locker with said rum sub– would be sure to pass on the wild tale to their family post-Prohibition leading to the inevitable “my great uncle told me about his whisky U-boat” anecdotal recollection on a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Build your own

A 1926 newspaper article tells a similar tale of a towed submersible caught coming across the U.S./Canadian border via Lake Champlain.

“[S]ubmarine without motors, has been seized at Lake Champlain with 4800 bottles of ale. The seizure was made by the Royal Canadian Boundary Waters and Customs officials. It is pointed out that bootleggers have been using every known method of conveyance to run contraband liquor from Canada to the United States, including automobiles, motorboats, aeroplanes, and submarines. The latter have been known an mystery boats, having a length of 28ft., with a device for submerging and rising to the surface, but without any propelling mechanism, they being towed by the hawser 175ft. long. Air and vision are obtained by periscopes. The authorities say these vessels are extremely expensive, but they have successfully conveyed so much liquor that they have quickly paid for themselves.”

A history of the anti-smuggling patrol from U.S. Customs on the Lake, collected by the Vermont Historical Society, relates a similar tale, with a better take on a smaller unmanned semi-submersible:

While in the main channel of the lake a bit west of the Rutland Railroad fill, we saw an object which, from a  distance, looked like a  floating log. Whenever we found logs or other floating hazards to navigation, we dragged them ashore. As we approached the presumed log, to our surprise we saw instead a sort of barge anchored in such a way that the top of it lay awash. About 10 feet long, 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, it had a hatch on the top which, when removed, disclosed a cargo of sacks of beer which weighted the barge sufficiently to keep it awash. Presumably towed by a small boat in stages over several nights,  we assumed that the smugglers would tow it as far as they dared during the night hours and would then anchor it in the hope that no one would discover it during the day. We towed the barge with its contents back to St. Albans Bay and again destroyed the alcoholic contents. The 1932 clippings from the St. Albans Messenger refer to a “submarine” bought at auction. Jack Kendrick later told me that this was the same barge which we had found floating in 1926.

Another Lake Champlain tale:

To disguise themselves on the water, some bootleggers tied a long rope to one end of the bags of alcohol and towed it behind them in a hollow log under water like a submarine. The disadvantage here, however, was that the log would immediately float to the surface and become visible if the boat were to be stopped by an officer. The method that worked best was to tie the bags of alcohol to one end of a rope and tie a box of rock salt to the other: if chased, the bootleggers could push the setup overboard, the bags and box would sink to the bottom, and later, as the rock salt dissolved, the box would float to the surface and act as a buoy-like marker for bootleggers to recover their lost cargo.

A look at an alleged effort on the Detroit River complete with oil drum diving helmets

Then, there is the small scale home-built river running submersible on public display at the Grand Gulf Military Park near Port Gibson, Mississippi.


Apparently the one-man submarine was powered by a Model T Ford Engine and used during the early Prohibition period to bootleg whiskey and rum from Davis Island to Vicksburg.

A turn of phrase

Another popular action of the period (and even today), moon-shining, saw the advent of “submarine stills” large black pot stills with a capacity of  up to 800-gallons of mash.

Submarine stills...like Japanese midget subs waiting for the 7th Fleet

Submarine stills…like Japanese midget subs waiting for the 7th Fleet

This led to the inevitable possibility of bootleggers passing off bottles of hootch that, when asked where they came from, would be told “From a submarine”….which may have made the legend of surplus U-boats full of whisky more popular than the reality.

Either way, it is a great story.


Colombia’s finest (unterseeboots)

HI Sutton, who has been kinda enough to mirror some of our posts from LSOZI before at his excellent Covert Shores blog (and I do recommend going over there and checking it out regularly) penned a piece for Foreign Brief on the evolution of Narco Subs, which included this dope (no pun intended) info graphic (click to very much big up!)



From the article:

2016 looks set to be a bumper year for narco-sub incidents.

Just last month, Colombian security forces discovered a 15-metre narco-sub in the jungle near the Pacific coast. A few weeks earlier, the U.S. Coast Guard published footage of a narco-sub intercepted off the Panamanian coast with 5.5 tonnes of cocaine on board, valued at $200 million. In March, an abandoned narco-sub was found stranded on a reef off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, its load of narcotics already unloaded by drug smugglers.

More here.

Scratch one narco sub

P-3s are still out there busting subs everyday...just in a different livery

P-3s are still out there busting subs everyday…just in a different livery and with no Mk46s

A Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine Office P-3 Orion Long Range Tracker found a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel (SPSS/dope sub) in the Eastern Pacific Ocean that led to the arrest of four smugglers and the boat being lost at sea with 6 tons of blow on board. Street value was $193 milly.

As noted by CBP in their presser:

The crew aboard a P-3 Long Range Tracker detected a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel Mar. 2, while conducting counter-narcotics operations with Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South.

The task force coordinated an interdiction of the semi-submersible with a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in the area while the AMO crew maintained constant visual surveillance. Upon interdiction, the U.S. Coast Guard arrested four individuals operating the vessel.  The semi-submersible became unstable and sank.

“This type of cooperation and teamwork produces these kinds of results where suspects are arrested and narcotics prevented from reaching U.S. shores,” said Director John Wassong at the National Air Security Operations Center – Corpus Christi. “Our crews will continue to take every opportunity to disrupt this type of transnational criminal activity.”

CBP operates two types of P-3s: 11 P-3 Airborne Early Warning, or AEW, and 3 P-3 Long Range Tracker, or LRT, aircraft flying from Corpus Christi, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida.

CBP’s LRTs, called “slicks” by the service to differentiate them from the AN/APS 145 radar-equipped AEWs, are former USN P-3As that have landed most of their ASW and ASuW suite, replacing them with an electro-optic ball with night vision and FLIR capabilities, APG 66 air search and SeaVue marine search radars used for detecting and tracking targets of interest.

Over 40 years old, the 14 Orions flown by CBP have been extensively reworked in recent years and are expected to remain in service for another two decades.

The DHS Does OPFOR Submarine Ops…


Ever Heard of Pluto?

Homeland Security’s ‘narco sub’ PLUTO mimics the real thing

PLUTO seen during tests in San Diego, CA…..If you live around Destin, you may have bumped into it…

Surrogate semi-submersible engineered to mimic the design of the “dark vessels” being used
to bring narcotics and other illicit cargo into the United States. With low profiles and low radar reflectivity, stealthy, drug-running semi-submersibles, “narco subs,” built in southern jungles cut through the ocean at wave height and are nearly impossible to detect.  DHS’ semi-submersible mimics them so that  a variety of sensors can be tested  in the battle  against illegal drug-running.

The erstwhile planet Pluto (now officially an asteroid) was known for decades as a small, dark planet—hidden, difficult to spot, and on a quiet, determined course all its own.  And so, when the DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) needed a target semi-submersible to detect the hidden but determined maritime smuggling operations of the South American drug cartels, it created its own vessel and called it “PLUTO,” after the planet that is so difficult to spot.  S&T’s PLUTO is a small, semi-submersible that is representative of what are popularly called “narco subs,” and serves as a realistic practice target for the detection systems of DHS and its national security community partners.

In the early 90’s, South American drug cartels came up with a new tactic to transport narcotics destined for the United States: small, radar-dodging, self-propelled, semi-submersibles (SPSSs).  Although clandestine semi-submersibles were rumored to exist in the mid-1990s, many believed them to be a myth, hence their name Bigfoots.  Then in 2006, an actual Colombian semi-submersible was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.  Today, drug cartels continue to build their “narco subs.”  With low profiles and low radar reflectivity, these illegal, stealthy, drug-running semi-submersibles cut through the water at wave height and are nearly impossible to detect.

S&T built PLUTO in 2008 to serve as a surrogate SPSS with many of the same features as the vessels built by the cartels.  It is used as a target by DHS and its national security community partners to help test the performance of detection systems and give operators of those systems real world experience under controlled conditions.  This testing helps develop new concepts of operation for seaborne, airborne, and space-borne technologies to spot illegal vessels.

“Small surface vessels, self-propelled semi-submersibles, and now the most recent innovation of fully submerged vessels (FSVs), pose significant challenges to maritime security,” says Tom Tomaiko of S&T’s Borders and Maritime Security Division.  “While some small boats sitting low in the water have legitimate purposes, there are many that are used for illicit purposes.

Dozens of these boats have been captured by the U.S. and partner nation law enforcement agencies in the last few years, sometimes with their cargo still on board, sometimes after it has been thrown overboard.  “When the crews become aware they’ve been spotted, they will typically scuttle the boat immediately, knowing they’ll be rescued by us anyway,” says Tomaiko.

Meanwhile, cramped living conditions within the illegal SSPSs can be horrendous.  There is generally only 3” of space above the waterline, meaning the ride can be very rough.  The small crews of 3 or 4 have little to eat, poor air quality, no toilet facilities, operate with little rest until they reach their destination, and are sometimes watched over by an armed guard.

If the mission is undetected and the drugs successfully delivered, the vessel is typically scuttled and not reused.  “Drug-running is lucrative.  It is cheaper to simply build another vessel than to run the risk of trying to get a vessel and its crew home,” says Tomaiko.

In a typical operation, PLUTO will operate at SPSS cruising speeds of 4 to 8 knots while remote sensor platforms from sea to space attempt to detect and track it at various distances and observation angles.

S&T’s PLUTO is home-ported at Eglin Air Force Base, near Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and is maintained by the Air Force’s 46th Test Squadron.  Various civilian and military
agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection/Air and Marine (CBP/OAM), U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and other national agencies have tested their remote sensing capabilities against PLUTO in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Pacific.

In 2009, Customs and Border Protection tested its Dash 8 maritime surveillance aircraft against PLUTO at the Eglin range and near Key West, Florida.These results helped gauge the performance of the Dash 8’s SeaVue radar against PLUTO and helped determine detection distances and aspect angles for optimal mission performance. In addition, the U.S. Navy tested one of its P-3 aircraft equipped with maritime surveillance radar system against PLUTO.All such tests were instrumental in helping to verify the performance of sensor capabilities, and provided operators with real-world training which will help determine future tactics.

PLUTO is just over 45 feet long, can run roughly 10 knots at maximum speed and can hold a crew of 3 to 4, although it usually operates with only one for safety reasons.  It has VHF and HF radios, and the 46th Test Squadron can install other types of radios and maritime automated identification system (AIS) equipment to meet testing or safety requirements.  Conditions onboard, however, were primarily influenced by the need for crew safety, so PLUTO’s design does not exactly mimic that of illegal SSPSs.

Technical capabilities such as PLUTO are necessary to counter and stay ahead of threats to the country.  Admiral James Stavridis, former Joint Commander for all US forces in the Caribbean, Central and South America, wrote, “Criminals are never going to wait for law enforcement to catch up.  They are always extending the boundaries of imagination, and likewise, we must strive to push forward technology and invest in systems designed specifically to counter the semi-submersible.  We need to be able to rapidly detect and interdict this new type of threat, both for its current effects via the drug trade, and – more troublingly – for its potential as a weapon in the hands of terrorists.”

Scratch Another Dope U-Boat

And down goes the fifth drug sub captured by the USCG in the past ten months....

A sinking self-propelled semi-submersible vessel was interdicted in the Western Caribbean Sea March 30, 2012, by the crews of Coast Guard Cutter Decisive, Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island, Joint Interagency Task Force South and the Honduran Navy. The SPSS sank during the interdiction in thousands of feet of water. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard assets spearheaded by  the forty year old 210-foot Decisive caught up with a unidentified narco sub in a story released today

“The cutters’ crews were called in when an Air Station Miami aircrew, working in the Caribbean in support of Joint Interagency Task Force South’s Operation Martillio, spotted a suspicious vessel and notified 7th Coast Guard District watchstanders of the location. Pea Island and Decisive diverted to the position and their pursuit boat crews were dispatched.

With both Pea Island and Decisive’s pursuit boat crews on the case, the SPSS was successfully interdicted and four suspected smugglers were detained. During the interdiction, the drug sub sank in thousands of feet of water, an act that is common as drug traffickers design their vessels to be difficult to spot and rapidly sink when they detect law enforcement.

“Medium endurance cutters like the Decisive are built for multi-week offshore patrols including operations requiring enhanced communications and helicopter and pursuit boat operations,” said Capt. Brendan McPherson, 7th Coast Guard District chief of enforcement. “When combined with patrol boats like the Pea Island, which has superior speed and flexibility, it helps us and our partners to provide the Coast Guard’s unique blend of military capability, law enforcement authority and lifesaving expertise wherever needed to protect American interests.”

I spent some time aboard the Decisive last fall, and the Swamp Rats should be proud, Bravo Zulu!

Swamp Rats icon on the stern of the Decisive, home-ported in the bayous of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Pascagoula, MS