A new type of 'narco submarine' captured by USCG Cutter Active in the Easter Pacific Ocean, May 5, 2021. There is enough that is distinct to give it a fresh family designation, LPV-OM-VSV-10. Although it appears well finished, as far as these things go, many details seem borrowed from other types. The unusual reinforced cockpit leading edge is strongly reminiscent of the LPV-IM-14 and related LPV-IM-VSV-1 types for example. But other features do not match that master boat builder. New narco submarine types are increasingly often copies of various features of established types.
Bad Jizz: New Generation Of Narco Submarine Builders Present A Problem
We are seeing a shift in narco submarine production, a new epoch. It’s getting harder to classify them.
In popular imagination the story of narco submarines is largely shaped by the exceptions, the unusual vessels and unique circumstances which make headlines. The ones that are the biggest, most sophisticated, which turn up in unlikely places, use disguises or are chased down by sailing ships. Yet the real story, from the analyst’s perspective, is one of trends and norms. And connecting multiple individual incidents.
For over 10 years I have been amassing a database of every reported narco submarine incident, over 200 in total. With visual descriptions, specifications (to the extend reported) and circumstances of the discovery. This has led to a general observation that narco-submarine history can be divided into epochs, defined by the general trends driving their development.
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For the last five years narco submarines have been increasingly productionized. They aren’t just built in batches, the same designs are built again and again for years. This makes identifying families of specific designs relatively fruitful. But it is getting more and more difficult to identify specific families. I think that this is because there is a major shift. A new epoch.
Narco submarine production may have entered a new phase. After the period of Productionization, we are now seeing greater variance again. This suggests more one-off vessels and, likely, more people designing and building them. It can be characterized as a Commoditization of narco submarine technology.
The Previous epoch: Productionization
The years 2016-20 saw a widespread productionization of designs. Distinct types where built in multiple batches with only slight changes in design. For example, 18 LPV-OM-VSV-1s (low profile vessel, outboard motors, very slender vessel, 1st family) were found over four years. Clearly most get through, so assuming a 20% interdiction rate (it's likely lower), then around 90 of this single design have been built. The same is broadly true of a swath of distinct types.
During this epoch, narco submarines could be grouped into distinct families. Tell-tail features acted like design fingerprints pointing to the master boat builder. There were always exceptions, with some instances of unique vessels being caught. But the trend was clear.
Jizz means the general, overall impression of a bird's (or narco submarine's) physical characteristics that can help pinpoint a proper identification.
Yet recently some of the vessels which I have labeled as LPV-OM-VSV-1, and meet the checklist of features, give off the wrong vibe. They fail the ‘jizz test’ (borrowed from birdwatching, meaning the general impression that a species gives off which allows a human to instantly recognize it). Despite ticking the boxes they have looked a bit different. Rougher work in every way. It is as if they are copies of the exact type. And others have turned up which again, look like copies of other specific designs. Off enough to alert the analyst, but ticking every box in recognition list.
Why is this? My main hypothesis
From the outside perspective we can only theorize. My main hypothesis is that we are seeing a new generation of narco submarine builders. But this new generation aren’t like the last. They aren’t master boat builders trained in legitimate civilian environment who applied their skills to an illegal trade. They may instead have been trained on the job, building the previous versions. And like apprentices, they copy their master’s work. But without the broader experience they cannot apply much original thought, thus their products are essentially copies.
This change may have come about due to multiple factors. The disruptive impact of COVID, which likely increased demand for narco submarines (and larger payloads) as regular shipping was for a time restricted, is one. And law enforcement action, both on the high seas and ashore, has claimed a few of the established players, possibly creating gaps. But I would guess that a lot of the older players are simply retiring. Or being undercut by their former workers.
The 'narco submarine' interdicted by the Ecuadorian Navy sailing ship on October 22 is another new type. It has provisionally been labelled LPV-OM-13. However it is very basic compared to most others, lacking a hatch over the cockpit, and having a hatch for the cargo, near to the cockpit. It is as if a go-fast builder decided to try an LPV.
And while those main type remain, we are also seeing more and more variations and new types. Additionally, some of these appear, at first glance, to be copies of previous successful designs. They are different enough to be identified as distinct families, but close enough that the influence is clear.
This commoditization will bring new challenges for law enforcement aiming to disrupt and prevent the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).
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