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Monday, May 25, 2020

May 25, 2020
The Narco Submarine was actually a low-profile vessel (LPV). It is relatively fast and hard to detect but the military-grade sensors on U.S. Navy aircraft and warships reduce the odds of them completing their voyage. H I SUTTON (PHOTO USCG)

The narco-submarine may not have been expecting a guided missile destroyer to be bearing down on it. Until April this year, U.S. Navy warships were less often involved in drug submarine busts on the high seas. But the Trump administration’s new enhanced counter-narcotics operations has changed that, as a narco-sub found out on May 14. This may mark the start of a new age in narco-submarine interdiction.

Despite its inherent stealthiness the vessel was detected by a P-8 Poseidon from the VP-26 ‘Tridents’ squadron of the U.S. Navy. A destroyer, USS Pinckney, with a U.S. Coast Guard team aboard, then moved into position to intercept it. The destroyer’s SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters and fast boats made the interdiction. This was the first reported narco-sub seizure since President Trump announced ‘enhanced counter-narcotics operations’ on April 1.

Aboard the narco sub were 1.5 tons of cocaine. This would be 1,400 individual bricks, each weighing 1 kilogram (2.2 lb), and bundled together in batches of 20 as bales. The load had an estimated wholesale value in excess of $23 million. This size of cargo is typical although much larger have been known.

Like most so-called narco submarines the craft could not actually submerge. It was a low-profile vessel, meaning that it is barely visible above the surface. This makes it very hard to detect, especially by eye. The exact type is a Very Slender Vessel (VSV), which is one of four main categories of narco-sub. The full taxonomy is LPV-OM-VSV meaning Low Profile Vessel, Outboard Motors, Very Slender Vessel. By my count this is the 40th narco-VSV to have been reported since they first emerged in 2017.

The USS Pinckney (DDG 91) is one of several warships now operating as part of U.S. Southern Command’s efforts to stem the flow of drugs from South America. A significant portion of it gets loaded aboard narco-submarines in the jungle estuaries of Colombia’s western coast. They sail up to Mexico and from there it flows overland into the United States. The Coast Guard and partner nations have made many seizures up to this point, but it is many years since the the Navy was deployed in this way.

This may be the first narco-submarine reported since the beginning of the enhanced operations, but there have been other drug seizures. On April 26 a joint effort by U.S. Coast Guard and Panamanian forces seized 83 bales of cocaine from a go-fast boat in the Caribbean. And on May 20 the Coast Guard cutter Active (WMEC-618) seized 2,000lb of cocaine aboard a ‘go-slow’ Panga-type fishing boat in the Pacific.