Narco Subs 101

Covert Shores Guide - updated
Narco submarines
The narco submarine phenomenon is reaching new heights. 2019 year yielded a bumper crop of narco-submarines, and it looks set to continue in 2020. These purpose-built vessels are one way Colombian cartels smuggle drugs. Routes take drugs up the Pacific towards Central America (and onwards to the United States), across the Caribbean and over the Atlantic to Europe and East Africa. Based on open source intelligence there were 39 reported incidents in 2019. This compares to just two a decade earlier. But this is just the tip of the iceberg because most get through.

Despite the higher rate of interdictions, they keep coming. So there is no sign that the losses are at a level which deters the DTO (drug trafficking organizations).

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Virtually all of these ‘submarines’ are actually low-profile vessels (LPVs) designed to escape detection by riding low in the water. They do not fully submerge. Instead a few feet of fiberglass rises above the surface. This is enough to make them extremely difficult to see.

There are a few more things which are not widely known about these vessels. One is that most are mass produced in secret Artisan workshops in the Colombian jungle. This means near-identical copies produced in multiple batches over years. Although many designs look very similar to untrained eyes, each master boat builder leaves their personal mark in the way they express their ideas. Subtle design choices act as a fingerprint to connect separate reported incidents. In this way, thanks to my database of over 180 incidents, I have devised a detailed taxonomy (which is set out in full in my book, the only one on the topic).

Below I will lay out the main categories and give examples:

LPV-IM - Low Profile Vessel with inboard motor
The main category historically, terminology updates the SPSS (self-propelled semi-submersible) label.

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LPV-OM - Low Profile Vessel with outboard motor
Merging LPV and go-fast modes, these look more like speed boats but are intended to run low in the water.
Narco submarine
Narco submarine
Narco submarine
Narco submarine

LPV-OM-VSV - Low Profile Vessel with outboard motor, very slender vessel
Narco submarine
Narco submarine

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LPV-IM-VSV - Low Profile Vessel with inboard motor, very slender vessel
Narco submarine

FSV - Fully submersible vessel
Includes both true submarines and 'snorkel subs' which keep a mast above water.
Narco submarine
Narco submarine
Narco sub

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