In the last few months, an increasing number of so-called narco subs, also called drug subs, have been intercepted in international waters by law enforcement (“LE“). A narco sub is usually a self-propelled semi-submersible (“SPSS“) used by drug traffickers to transport large quantities of illegal drugs for cartels to an international market.
SPSS are stealthy and often go unnoticed and have grown in popularity so much that US officials now estimate that more than 30% of cocaine trafficked into the US enters from SPSSs. Many SPSSs are self-driving.
Of concern for international security is the risk that such vessels may be used by terrorists or agents engaged in state-sponsored terrorism to transport weapons of mass destruction undetected, or to attack the US or Canadian coast along the Pacific Ocean. Terrorist organizations and drug cartels already have existing trade and money laundering relationships.
More sophisticated narco subs
In August 2020, a 100 foot narco sub was found by LE in Colombia in a river in the jungle, which if operational, could carry about US$200 million in cocaine. A few days after that discovery, Colombian LE seized a SPSS carrying US$18.2 million of cocaine being transported for Mexico’s leading cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (“CJNG“). Colombian LE believe the SPSS is owned by the CJNG.
On a small scale, a personal submersible was used by a Canadian in a kind of a James Bond move to smuggle cash and 265 pounds of illegal drugs along the bottom of the Detroit River from Canada to the US in June, 2020. The vessel was equipped with two cameras, wifi and operated at more than 13 miles per hour. It is the first known case of a personal fully submersible vessel being used underwater to smuggle drugs between Canada and the US.
Both pale in comparison, however, to the November 2019, detection and seizure of a 66 foot fully submersible submarine captured off Spain transporting US$100 million in cocaine from Colombia that has transited through a third country, likely Brazil and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
Connections to Canada
The idea of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels using real submarines to transport illegal drugs originated around the early 1990s and has some connections to Canada.
3 mobsters try to buy a Russian narco sub
Three people – a Russian mobster named Ludwig Fainberg, aka Tarzan, who immigrated to Miami, together with a Cuban drug trafficker who was then a fugitive named Nelson Tony Yester, and a supplier of luxury vehicles, “go fast” drug boats and equipment to drug cartels in Miami named Juan Almeida, traveled to Russia to buy a submarine for US$35 million from the Russian navy on behalf of the Cali Cartel. The Cali Cartel wanted a real submarine to be able to transport 40 tons of cocaine without being detected from Colombia to the United States and Canada.
The sale did not go through and the story of how a submarine from Russia was almost bought for the Cali Cartel was the subject of a documentary on Netflix called “Operation Odessa.”
The three – Fainberg, Yester and Almeida were each indicted and subject to various prosecutions in connection with drug trafficking in the US. As they themselves say in the documentary Operation Odessa, their faces were plastered all over newspapers around the world and they were infamous.
Fainberg flipped on Almeida for a reduced jail sentence of 33 months, subsequent to which he was deported to Israel, his last port of entrance before he had immigrated to the US.
Before moving to Miami, Fainberg set fire to businesses for the Mafia in New York when business owners refused to pay Mafia extortion payments, a job which he says he “enjoyed” and later moved to Miami where he opened a strip club and engaged in trafficking women from Eastern Europe.
Fainberg shows up in Canada
After his indictment and subsequent conviction in connection with activities of the Cali Cartel, Canada approved Fainberg’s entrance into Canada in 2000. Fainberg apparently married a woman in Ottawa and had some cash from somewhere which he planned to use to open a strip club in Canada with women from Eastern Europe that he said he could buy for $10,000 each from a broker in Russia (Benjamin Skinner, A Crime so Montrous: Face-to-Face Wirth Modern Day Slavery).
As noted by DEA special agent Alex Yasevich in this story on the Russian Mafia, they spread themselves across many criminal activities. Another Netflix documentary, The World’s Most Wanted, describes the story of Russian kingpin Semion Mogilevich, who used a Canadian issuer called YBM Magnex International to perpetrate a US$1 billion securities fraud. A 2010 Human Trafficking report published by Cambridge University noted that Mogilevich’s operations in Moscow and Budapest are also implicated in the trafficking of women, with relationships to crime groups in North and South America, further noting the fact that Fainberg used Slavic women to lure Colombia drug traffickers to his Miami strip club as an optimization of those relationships. Fainberg is apparently now back in Russia.
Fainberg and Almeida were business associates with a person named Donald Aronow, who invented the “go-fast” boats that were used by cartels to run drugs up the coast to the US. Aronow was murdered in a gangland style hit on February 3, 1987, in Miami. Together with several others, he operated a marina called Fort Apache in Miami, frequented by drug traffickers. In a court proceeding, the marina was referred to as the Ester Palace where Almeida would treat customers as follows: “snow blind’em, eye wash’em and take their cake.”
The esteemed Chief Judge A. Jay Cristol, a former Navy captain, wrote an entertaining judgment here in respect of some of these parties where he mused that transportation equipment sent to Colombia, such as Aronow’s go-fast boats, equipped with turbo jet engines that travel 600 miles at 60 miles per hour without refuelling were no doubt for sport fishing.
For the drug cartels to transition from go-fast boats to a submarine and reach out to the same group of drug trafficking transportation facilitators in Miami, makes sense. In addition to manufacturing and selling the cartels go-fast boats, they also procured military helicopters for drug cartels.
The identification, detection and interception of narco subs is usually performed by the US Coast Guard and other Coast Guards, together with national navies and drug enforcement agencies. Interceptions of narco subs can be very dangerous, as depicted in this video below.