Drug traffickers have shifted to semi-submersible craft and other smaller, harder-to-detect boats to elude surveillance, causing a sharp drop in cocaine seizures last year, United States officials said on Monday.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the message was ”loud and clear”.
”The bad guys are moving faster than we’re moving,” he told members of a secretive joint inter-agency task force here that is at the nerve centre of the US interdiction effort.
Officials said seizures of cocaine flowing north out of South America plummeted from 257 metric tonnes in 2006 to 208 metric tonnes last year, the second year in a row they have fallen.
Cocaine shipments at sea, still far and away the main method of moving the drug to markets in the United States and Europe, accounted for most of the drop.
Officials who briefed reporters here on condition of anonymity acknowledged that they were slow to pick up on the latest change in tactics by drug traffickers.
They said their success in tracking and stopping high powered speed boats laden with cocaine forced drug traffickers to find new ways of slipping through the net of radars and air and naval patrols use to catch them.
At first they responded by sending big mother ships further west in the Pacific in 2005 and 2006 to circle around the US surveillance net, they said.
Other streams of air and maritime traffic turned east from South America to Africa to keep out of range of US over-the-horizon radars.
But traffickers also found that they could elude US surveillance by sending out many more, less powerful boats with smaller loads of cocaine that could blend in with other small vessels.
And authorities are finding increasing numbers of semi-submersible boats, which were first found in the mid 1990s in Colombia but are making a comeback, the officials said.
They said Colombian authorities have since interdicted 18 of the submarine-like craft, some of which were still under construction.
”They are very hard to detect,” said one official, who added that US authorities intercepted its first semi-submersible in November 2006.
It was nicknamed ”Bigfoot” because it was long rumored to exist but no one had seen it, he said.
”Every one is different. They are like snowflakes. They don’t have a standard design yet,” the official said.
Admiral James Stavridis, head of US Southern Command, later told reporters in Miami: ”They are the coming thing.”
Stavridis offered other explanations for the drop-off in cocaine seizures, including the possibility that more cocaine was being shipped to Europe or that drug cartels are spending more money to pay off officials in Latin America.
But he said ”drug dealers are using more things like these semi-submersibles. So in any given contest between offense and defence you have to adjust your tactics and move forward.”
”Certainly we are redoubling our efforts on the tactical piece, in particular to get after these semi-submersibles, which I think are of concern.”
As a reminder to his command of the ingeniousness of their adversaries, Stavridis has had a model of a semi-submersible captured by Colombian authorities in 1993 displayed outside the entrance to the US Southern Command. – AFP