WASHINGTON– Legislation imposing tough penalties for operating undocumented semi-submersible vessels in international waters would help drug-interdiction efforts, the deputy chief of the Coast Guard’s Law Enforcement Office said Sept. 30. Self-propelled semi-submersibles, or SPSSs, are small sea vessels, usually less than 100 feet in length, designed to sink themselves when detected, Coast Guard Cmdr. Cameron Naron explained to bloggers in a teleconference. Drug traffickers are adapting the technology with increasing success to evade law enforcement, he said.

“Drug-trafficking organizations continue to adapt these vessels … to our law enforcement successes,” Naron said. “These SPSSs were once perceived as a very impractical and risky smuggling tool, but now have proven successful as an innovative and highly mobile asymmetrical method of conveyance.”

Naron said the number of encounters with smugglers using semi-submersibles to transport illegal drugs from South America to the continental United States ballooned in fiscal 2008, with 62 known incidents in the first three quarters of the fiscal year, compared to about two dozen over the previous six and a half years.

Coast Guard officials estimate that two to three semi-submersibles carrying illegal drugs travel up the Pacific coast each week, he added.

“In order to prosecute these cases, we’ve always needed to have at least a representative sample of the drugs on board,” Naron explained, which is difficult and risky to obtain if the crew succeeds in sinking the vessel before law enforcement takes control.

“These SPSSs are built to scuttle, which means to sink themselves very quickly,” he explained. “And the time … that it takes to get on board and try to keep them from scuttling is a very, very short amount of time that we have, and [it] puts our boarding teams at significant risk.”

Naron described a Sept. 13 nighttime interdiction of a stateless semi-submersible detected 350 miles west of Guatemala, in which smugglers tried to throw a Coast Guard law-enforcement team off the vessel by backing down and quickly reversing the engines. When the team clung to exhaust fixtures to avoid being thrown into the ocean, he said, the people aboard attempted to flood the vessel and escape through the conning tower.

“Although the scuttling valves were only open for a few moments,” he said, “nearly a foot of water had already entered the hull of this SPSS.”

Naron said the team recovered and detained four Columbian nationals who will be prosecuted in the United States. The vessel was carrying 11,850 pounds of cocaine, he said.

“The operator later admitted that he was trying to kill the boarding team by throwing them off the SPSS and into the vessel’s propeller,” Naron said.

If signed by the president, Naron said, new legislation approved in the House of Representatives Sept. 29 would allow for the prosecution of anyone caught on a self-propelled semi-submersible if it’s on an international voyage and isn’t documented in any country or registered in any state.

The legislation, he said, provides for a 15-year jail term and a $1 million civil penalty for the offense. It was passed by the Senate prior to House approval, he added.

“This legislation will allow us to prosecute these people just based on the fact that they were operating [a semi-submersible] vessel, subject to the … qualifications,” Naron said. “So, that will help our enforcement efforts significantly to counter this, and hopefully, this means moving drugs into the U.S. and other places will be significantly reduced.”

Naron said the legislation also would help reduce the risk associated with drug-interdiction efforts by the Coast Guard and other agencies.

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