“Semi-submersibles,” up to 80 feet long and exhibiting some of the same characteristics as military submarines, mark a significant advance in the ability of drug smugglers to slip past coastal defenses, reports the Boston Globe. So far this year, the Coast Guard has encountered at least 27 headed toward the southern and western U.S., more than in the previous six years combined; far more are believed to have gone undetected. The growing number and sophistication of the vessels has set off alarms at the highest levels of the military and the Department of Homeland Security. Counterterrorism officials fear that what drug runners use to deliver cocaine, terrorists could one day sneak personnel or massive weapons into the country.
Navy Admiral James Stavridis, commander of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, warned that, “If drug cartels can ship up to 10 tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible, they can clearly ship or rent space to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction or a high-profile terrorist.” U.S. intelligence officials have concluded the pod-like vessels are being constructed in “expeditionary shipyards” – remote, makeshift facilities along rivers or estuaries in the jungles of Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine – from which they are transported to the coast for the journey north. They are estimated to cost up to several million dollars apiece.