Coast Guard seizes sub loaded with cocaine

The Coast Guard has hauled in $180 million worth of cocaine after intercepting drug runners’ new vessel of choice for transporting goods to market — a self-propelled semisubmersible (SPSS).

The crew of the Seneca, a 270′ medium-endurance cutter homeported in Boston, pulled off the first interception of an SPSS in the Caribbean on July 13 off the coast of Honduras, the Coast Guard said Monday in Miami. On July 26, the crew of the cutter Oak located the sunken SPSS, and with the help of FBI divers recovered nearly 7.5 tons of cocaine.

Over the last few years, the Coast Guard has stopped these vessels in the eastern Pacific. Barely visible above the surface, the craft are 25’ to 65’ long, carry four to five crew, and are powered by rebuilt fishing boat engines, according to the Coast Guard. They can make up to 13 knots with a range of up to 5,000 nautical miles (2,500 nautical miles without refueling).

Here’s a video, courtesy of the Coast Guard, of the crew being captured and the SPSS sinking:


Built in the leftist rebel controlled jungles of Colombia with advanced steel construction and equipped with sophisticated electronics, the vessels can hold seven to 10 tons of cocaine and are easily scuttled if detected. With no running lights and no flag, they’re also hazards to navigation.

In this recent smuggling attempt, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection plane spotted the SPSS, and a Seneca helicopter crew and pursuit boat stopped it. The semisubmersible was taking on water after being scuttled by its crew, said Seneca Cmdr. Charles Fosse. They removed the SPSS crew, the Coast Guard team and two packages of drugs seconds before the vessel sank.

Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, commanding officer of the cutter Oak, said the search of a quarter-mile-by-quarter-mile area was “essentially looking for a needle in a haystack.” He described the event as a once in a career experience. “I’ve been here for 27 years, and I’ve never been involved in a drug case like this,” Niles said.

The increased use of sub-like vessels prompted Congress in 2008 to enact a new law making it illegal to operate a stateless SPSS on the theory that there’s no legitimate purpose for such craft. That means the crews can’t scuttle the vessels to avoid prosecution.

Crewmembers from the Oak were scheduled to offload the seized cocaine at Base Support Unit Miami today at noon.

Click here for an audio interview with Cmdr. Charles Fosse, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca.

Click here for an audio interview with Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Oak.


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