Video: Coast Guard Intercepts Mini-Sub

Video frame courtesy USCG PACAREA / Lt. Donnie Brzuska

By MarEx 2016-03-28 21:16:23

In recent months, the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf have nearly made a specialty of interdicting semi-submersible drug smuggling vessels off the Pacific coast of Central America. On March 28, the Coast Guard released video of a boarding team from the cutter apprehending their second low-profile “mini-sub” in a year.

The action was also the service branch’s fifth such intercept in nine months. For comparison, the USCG caught no semi-submersibles at all in 2013 and 2014. 

The Bertholf's crew removed six tons of cocaine and a loaded weapon from the low-profile vessel. With no way to tow the smuggling craft back to shore from its location off Panama, they chose to sink it.

The Coast Guard and the Border Patrol - both units of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - have gotten better at detecting the stealthy vessels, but the increased number of intercepts also reflects the type’s increasing popularity as a smuggling method of choice, says Vice Admiral Charles Ray, commander of the USCG's Pacific Area. 

“Transnational organized crime groups continue to adjust their tactics to avoid detection, indicated by a recent rise in the use of [semi-submersible] vessels,” he said in a statement Monday. “Despite these efforts, we will continue to execute an offensive strategy that targets, attacks and disrupts these dangerous criminal networks.”

But in a news conference, Vice Admiral Ray added that the Coast Guard could do more to stop traffickers if it had more resources. He suggested that while the USCG has intelligence on a high percentage of the drug shipments passing along the Pacific coast, it can only intercept about two out of every 10 suspected vessels, as it doesn't have the cutters or the manpower to reach everything and must prioritize the largest shipments instead.

Like other anti-narcotics operations, the intercepts at sea come with serious risks. “[Semi-submersible] interdictions are inherently dangerous, yet we persevere to disrupt the funding sources of illicit organizations causing violence and instability in Central America,” said Captain Laura Collins, commanding officer of the Bertholf. "Semi-submersibles are extremely un-seaworthy . . . we treat each one as if it were a sinking vessel until we can complete our own safety evaluation."