By Josh Phillips

Under the cover of night, an 80-foot semi-submersible vessel carrying cocaine with a value of approximately $150 million cruises the Caribbean Sea. This “drug sub” was developed in, and launched from, the jungles of Colombia to avoid conventional radar while shipping its cargo to the United States. It will sail slowly but quietly through the night, avoiding detection until it reaches its destination.

A 30-foot power boat with multiple 250-horsepower engines rides low in the water as it muscles along the Florida coastline. Its only passenger is a pilot, leaving room for 2,000 gallons of fuel and 3,000 pounds of cocaine destined for Miami and points north.

Pastel-lit backdrops and lavish scenery were the well-known face of southern Florida—particularly Miami—in the 1980s. The city was once the media-glamorized epicenter of the cocaine scene, as dealers and suppliers packed South Beach with exotic vehicles, suitcases full of money and a “party now, pay later” attitude.

Today, the drug-fueled bacchanalia that symbolized the area in the 1980s has largely disappeared. However, sleek boats, grizzled drug runners and even pseudo-submarines are still a cause of concern in these southern waters. South American drug lords continue to use the Caribbean as a passageway to the United States, seeking to flood the market and streets with massive amounts of white powder and other illicit cargo.

“More than 80 percent of the cocaine destined for U.S. markets is transported via sea lanes, primarily using [coastal] routes through Central America,” said Air Force General Douglas Fraser, who retired in January after more than three years as commander of U.S Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).

In January 2012 under the moniker “Operation Martillo,” Spanish for “hammer,” 14 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Guatemala and Honduras began targeting drug trafficking routes in coastal waters from the United States to Central America. Operation Martillo uses military and law enforcement vessels, aircraft and personnel to stem the flow of illicit cargo, including drugs, weapons and chemicals, into the United States and to strangle the drug funds going to and from Central American cartels.

U.S. military participation is led by Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South, a component of SOUTHCOM comprised of federal and partner nation agencies and military forces. According to Jody Draves, a JIATF South spokeswoman, the task force’s mission is to conduct detection and monitoring operations and to share information to help law enforcement interdictions of illicit trafficking and other narco-terrorist threats.

According to 2011 SOUTHCOM statistics, international and interagency efforts coordinated through JIATF South “resulted in the disruption of approximately 119 metric tons of cocaine, with a wholesale value of $2.35 billion, before it could reach destinations in the United States.” This effort also seized $21 million in cash and about $16 million-worth of black market goods destined for traffickers in Central and South America.

In Operation Martillo’s first year, 339 arrests were made and 101 vessels seized, according to a SOUTHCOM spokesman, who added that about two-thirds of all disruptions were supported by partner nations. Through April 2013, he said, forces supporting Operation Martillo seized more than 152,000 kilograms of cocaine, valued at more than $3 billion, and more than 47,000 pounds of marijuana, valued at more than $44 million.

The Defense Department is the lead federal agency for Operation Martillo for detection and monitoring of aerial and maritime transit of illegal drugs into the United States. The interdictions are led and conducted by embarked U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachments or partner nation drug and law enforcement agencies. The success of Operation Martillo can largely be attributed to the use of naval aviation aircraft in spotting, tracking and intercepting these vessels.

Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Donis Waters, an MH-65 platform manager at the Office of Aviation Forces, said the Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON) deploys MH-65D Dolphin helicopters aboard cutters patrolling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific to combat smugglers.

“The aircraft sortie in support of the cutters to provide airborne surveillance and, when needed, an armed interdiction capability,” he said. “Certain vessels [are] equipped with multiple engines for speed [to] move illicit cargo, primarily cocaine, to the United States. As these vessels are detected, HITRON helicopters launch to intercept these drug boats at sea.”

Go-fast boats are usually small vessels designed to reach high speed without affecting their cargo-carrying capacity. The go-fast was once a favorite among rum smugglers during prohibition, but now is the sea-based workhorse for delivering cocaine. It is one of the primary vessels the MH-65 Dolphin is tasked to stop.

The Dolphin is part of the old guard of Coast Guard aircraft, introduced in 1984, with the MH-65D variant introduced in 2011. Because they are expected to remain in service through 2027, the Coast Guard is upgrading the helicopters with modern enhancements claimed to extend mission capabilities and improve their reliability. The Coast Guard says this conversion project adds digital technology, including GPS and inertial navigation, flight control, weather radar and cockpit instruments.

HITRON‘s MH-65D helicopters include a 7.62-mm machine gun and a .50-caliber rifle to disable engines on noncompliant go-fast vessels, and provide fire support for boarding teams. Upon detection, and with authorization from the Coast Guard, HITRON air crews signal the go-fasts to stop. If a vessel ignores the order to stop after warning shots are fired in front of the vessel, the aircraft or Coast Guard personnel fire their high-caliber arms into the engines of the drug trafficker’s boat to disable it, before arrest and seizure by the cutter’s boarding team.

“The skill of the pilots and marksmen enable the Coast Guard to place rounds into the go-fasts’ propulsion systems with precision, ultimately terminating the smugglers ability to transit day or night,” said Waters.

Beginning in the 1990s, Coast Guard officials began hearing of a new potential threat from the South American drug lords—semi-submersibles. These radar-evading vessels were developed and shipped out of the jungles of Colombia to complement the go-fast fleet.

“In the 1980s, these vessels appeared as towed cylinders,” said Draves. “In the early 1990s, efforts began to develop a self-propelled submersible vessel. In 2010, the first fully submersible vessel was seized on land and the first reported FSV was under way.”

Compared to the size and speed of a conventional military submarine, the semi-submersibles are not particularly large or fast. They are typically 80 feet long and travel at an approximate top speed of about 7 mph. Each vessel can accommodate five crewmembers and 10 metric tons. According to JIATF statistics, the range of these vessels varies, but the average can travel about 2,500 nautical miles without refueling.

As the main features of these semi-submersible “narco-subs” lie below the waterline, it is a perfect vehicle to avoid radar and law enforcement activities. Even when spotted, a unique design to these subs makes recovering the cargo difficult, if not impossible. The semi-subs can be easily scuttled by their crews once an interdiction appears unavoidable, sending their cargo to the bottom of the sea and out of the reach of law enforcement officials, making prosecuting smugglers difficult.

“By their design they present a very low profile, and they tend to blend into the surrounding seascape,” said Waters. “Given the huge expanse of the open ocean, it is not hard to hide when you are in a boat that floats just below the surface.”

In April 2012, Coast Guard Cutters Pea Island and Decisive, in cooperation with the Honduran navy, tracked a semi-sub suspected of smuggling cocaine in the western Caribbean. The Coast Guard reported the sub was successfully intercepted, resulting in the detention of four suspected smugglers. Instead of having their bales entered as case evidence against them, however, the drug sub was purposely sunk in thousands of feet of water, carrying its cargo to the bottom of the sea.

Although the Caribbean has long been a notorious hot spot for drug smuggling, the Pacific is also a popular route for South American drug lords looking to deliver their cargo.

In March, the USS Gary and an embarked Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment Team seized more than 2,200 pounds of cocaine valued at $81 million in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

“It was a complex operation involving a law enforcement boarding, boat and helicopter searches, precision driving, detainee handling and multiple deck operations, but Gary’s crew proved they were fully capable of handling it and scored a big win,” said ship’s navigator, Lieutenant Junior Grade Christian Gotcher.

“All our federal and international partners play important roles in stemming the flow of illegal drugs, but the counter-narcotics work of our Sacramento-based long-range aircraft is an important mission that rarely receives much public attention,” said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Karl Schultz, commander of the 11th Coast Guard District. “With few long-range surface assets available for patrols in the eastern Pacific, the role of our aviators in spotting and tracking smuggling vessels is more important than ever.”

There is too much money to be made from the flow of narcotics into the United States, all but ensuring that the Coast Guard and Navy will have their hands full in combating these traffickers for years to come. With the successes of Operation Martillo so far, it is more than apparent that naval aviation is up to the task.

–Josh Phillips is associate editor of Naval Aviation News. This article originally appeared in that magazine in Fall 2012.

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