Why the Narco Submarine Found In Europe Is Not Like Those In Latin America
On March 21 2021 the Colombian Navy captured a narco submarine before it could sail with its illicit cargo of cocaine. The vessel was typical of this found in recent years, being characterized by its Very Slender Vessel (VSV) form. This means that it is much longer than it is wide, with a length-to-beam ratio of 10:1 or more.
This contrasts with one recently discovered in Southern Spain. That was, by comparison, short and fat. Why are they so different? They were built by different people for sure, and the Colombian one is designed for much longer journeys. But there is a greater overarching factor: where they were built.
The types of environment where both these boats were built is interesting, and in stark contrast. And it has shaped them in ways which will appear obvious, but which you do not hear talked about.
The Narco Submarines Compared
Firstly, let us get a few of the similarities out of the way. Both are what we call Low Profile Vessels (LPVs) meaning that they do not fully submerge. Instead they ride extremely low in the water making them hard to spot. This is like the vast majority of reported “narco submarines”. To do this they use the payload and fuel as ballast. A few have more sophisticated ballast management systems, like a submarine, but that has become less popular. The master boat builders behind them have found that they do not need it.
They are both custom made hulls built out of marine plywood and fiberglass. And they can both carry about 2 tons of narcotics (payloads vary, 1.6 tons is typical in the Americas but the average has been increasing).
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Listing the differences is easier, they look nothing alike. The Colombian example conforms to recent norms and is basically a very long hull with a small cockpit right in the stern. Behind this are three outboard motors of the same type found on fishing boats in the region. They are reliable and easy to obtain. The one in Spain has a more unusual inboard motor arrangement with a Z-drive system where the screws (propellers) are below and behind the engines.
Location, Location, Location
But this is the bigger aspect. The Colombian narco submarine was found in a small tributary off a coastal estuary, hidden under the jungle canopy. It was on an island with no road access and basically no infrastructure. It was remote, very remote. There was no passing locals, and any that there were, were unlikely to report its presence.
A rare overhead photo through the jungle canopy. Colombian Navy.
When it was found it was in the process of being loaded with cocaine, but it was probably built in the same type of environment. Artisan boat yards are hacked out of the jungle and supplied with materials by boat. The narco subs can be quite large, around 20 meters (65 ft) or more long, but are typically quite shallow draft even when fully loaded. This allows them to negotiate the shallow waters of the tidal tributaries.
The one found in Spain however was in an industrial estate near to populated areas. It had been built in another industrial estate in the Netherlands. So it had to be small enough to fit in the shed and also road transportable. It was likely transported on a boat trailer.
Colombian example (upper), and the Spanish one (lower)
A custom go-fast smuggling boat found at the same time was a bit smaller and was able to fit neatly inside a standard truck trailer.
Unless the drug traffickers go for a sophisticated (and more risky) modular design, narco submarines built in Europe are bound to be about the same size.
The fact that it was being built, transported and hidden in populated areas also spurred the drug traffickers to attempt to disguise it. Fake deck furniture and a Bimini sun cover were part of the disguise. These may have also been useful when the vessel was moving inshore prior to starting its mission.
Larger narco submarines will also be found in Europe, but these will have been built in South America or Africa. Countries such as Brazil and Guyana are likely starting points for transatlantic narco submarines. And these environments are not that dissimilar to Colombia’s Pacific Coast. So we can expect similar narco submarines to the Pacific route. This was proven in November 2019 when one was seized in Spain. It was over 20 meters long and was essentially similar to others found in Latin America. Such a vessel would be very difficult to build in Europe without being discovered.
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