Authorities in Europe -- already overwhelmed by a flood of cocaine arriving in cargo ships -- now must face another smuggling method that has bedeviled law enforcement in the Americas: the "narco-submarine."
On March 12, Spain's National Police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs. The submarine was still in the process of being assembled when it was discovered in a warehouse in the country's coastal province of Málaga.
It was the first known narco-submarine to have been constructed in Spain, according to police. Europol officials later confirmed that it was also the first seized sub have been built anywhere in Europe, saying that vessels intercepted in the past had been manufactured in Latin America.
The seizure came as part of an anti-drug operation carried out by Europol, with help from authorities in Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The trafficking group -- which operated out of Spain's northeastern Catalonia region and was composed of Spanish, Colombian and Dominican nationals -- moved cocaine, hashish and marijuana across Europe. Between April 2020 and February 2021, a string of operations helped break up the network, resulting in 52 arrests and the seizure of over three tons of cocaine.
InSight Crime Analysis
The discovery of the first narco-submarine manufactured in Spain indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.
Drug submarines have traditionally sailed up the Pacific from Colombia to the United States. The vessels first appeared in the late 1990s but really took off about a decade later, with improved designs and construction. Difficult to detect and able to carry large cocaine loads, the submarines continue to be a favored trafficking method.
During the first eight months of last year, 27 semi-submersible vessels were seized, Colombian Admiral Hernando Mattos reported. Fourteen were detected in Colombian waters, and another 13 in international waters.
Traffickers based in Europe, meanwhile, have principally relied on using shipping containers and human smugglers, known as drug mules, to distribute cocaine across the continent.
In 2019, however, the first submarine to cross the Atlantic was intercepted off the coast of Spain. And now the first narco-sub building site has been found in that country.
While the vessel was likely to be used to move drugs around Europe, rather than to make a long-haul trip, it is possible that South American traffickers have been sharing their technical expertise with counterparts in Europe.
At an online seminar earlier this month, InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott said that the technology and manufacturing know-how needed to construct drug submarines are being exported by criminal groups.
As drug seizures targeting shipping containers have risen, narco-submarines could become more attractive to traffickers, despite their high construction costs. If that is the case, European authorities should prepare for anti-submarine operations such as those seen in the United States, where dramatic videos of guardsmen jumping on speeding vessels are not uncommon.