High Tech Drug Trade Meets Next Gen Enforcement

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Cocaine in high-tech submarines? What's next—unmanned aerial vehicles making drops over the border? Yes, the modern-day drug smuggler is not afraid to buy and use technology to get his illegal goods to the U.S. But the DEA is one step ahead. Here's how the U.S. is fighting a smarter smuggler.

Illustration by Gabriel Silveira

In the late 1990s, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents debated the existence of craft they called Bigfoots, semisubmersible cocaine-smuggling boats that ride low in the water to avoid detection. These days, law enforcement officials know these custom-built vessels exist—45 have been seized in the past three years alone—but no one in the DEA had seen anything like the craft discovered this year hidden in a jungle in Ecuador, near the Colombian border.

Following intelligence leads, DEA agents and local police found a homebuilt submarine, the first proof that cartels are fielding fully functional submarines to haul drugs. The diesel–electric sub has engine snorkels, electronics, a ballast system, a periscope and air conditioning, all of which speaks to a sophisticated manufacturer. “It looks like they built secondary and tertiary systems,” says DEA Andean regional director Jay Bergman.

A semi­submersible can cost up to $1 million to build, but hauls enough profitable cargo (between 2 and 6 tons of cocaine) that smugglers will discard it after a one-way trip and return home on commercial airlines, Bergman says. Now, DEA agents wonder if more advanced subs are making repeat journeys—literally under the radar. “If it’s the first, it won’t be the last,” Bergman says. “In the maritime domain, there’s nowhere else to go.”

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