- Drug cartels invented "narco subs" to smuggle drugs into the United States.
- The term includes both submersibles and non-submersibles, but neither are true submarines.
- The majority of narco subs reach their destinations—law enforcement intercepts a relatively small number of them.
One of the most unusual naval developments of the last century has been the rise of so-called "narco subs." The ships, which are technically not submarines at all, are used to smuggle drugs on the route from South America to North America (and now, even Europe). The video below is your primer to the world of narco subs, from the fast ones, to the sleek ones, to the ones that sit submerged and kind of resemble submarines.
Naval authority H.I. Sutton—author of the popular Covert Shores blog and the book Narco Submarines: Covert Shores Recognition Guide—produced the video, which is peppered with photos of narco subs in the wild. In it, Sutton breaks down the five different types of smuggling ships.
Generally, narco subs try to keep as low of a profile as possible; some ships keep just a bridge and waterproofed bow above the waves. Others make their trips submerged and resemble actual submarines, complete with a snorkel that provides oxygen for diesel engines. Unlike true subs, though, they sit at the same depth throughout their voyage.
Despite their crude appearance, narco subs are notoriously successful. "Most narco submarines get through. Even if 20 percent are stopped, and that is optimistic, then a conservative estimate would be that over 1,000 have been built," Sutton tells Popular Mechanics. He estimates that each vessel carries 1.6 tons or more of drugs, typically cocaine.
The routes the boats take are primarily from South America to Central America and beyond, Sutton explains. "The main route is in the Pacific, from Colombia up to Mexico, and from there, the drugs continue overland," he says. "But they have also been seen in the Caribbean, and crossing the Atlantic to Europe. We may see similar vessels being used on other routes, possibly even across parts of the Pacific."
Narco subs have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, slowly becoming harder to spot as their builders become more confident. What does Sutton think is next? Narco sub drones.
"Builders seek to optimize to reduce costs [and] risks while retaining profit. So far, this has driven them to reduce crews, and build ever more basic low-profile vessels," he says. "In the future, I think that we may see more automation, such as uncrewed surface vessels. These would be extremely low-profile to avoid detection."
Want to learn more? Read Sutton's latest report on a narco sub found just last week on a beach in Colombia.