First true submarine captured from American drug smugglers

Proper diesel-electric boat found at jungle 'shipyard'


Authorities in Ecuador say they have captured the first true submarine designed and built to smuggle drugs. "Semi-submersible" vessels have long been built for the narcotics trade, but it appears that the drug runners have now upped their game to make vessels able to travel completely underwater.

"It is the first fully functional, completely submersible submarine for transoceanic voyages that we have ever found," Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told AP.

According to reports the sub captured at the weekend measured 33m long, would have carried a crew of five or six, and was equipped with twin screw diesel-electric propulsion, a periscope and "air conditioning". It could have carried up to 10 tonnes of cargo, according to an initial DEA assessment.

The sub was reportedly found at a secret jungle "shipyard" facility hidden up an Ecuadorian river not far from the Colombian border. The shipyard complex had accommodation for up to 50 people, but only one was found by the Ecuadorian police and troops who arrived there at the weekend following a DEA tip.

"This is in a new maritime drug-trafficking class of its own," said Bergman.

Drug smugglers wishing to move cargoes through intensively patrolled and monitored Central American waters began using semi-submersibles years ago. A semi-submersible vessel is typically propelled by ordinary marine engines, but floats almost entirely under the surface. Only air intakes and some means for the crew to navigate need to project above the wave. However low-tech drug subs, lacking the exhaust diffusers sometimes used by military vessels to lessen infrared signature, usually have an exhaust stack too.

A semi-sub is much harder to see visually than a normal boat, and considerably harder to pick up on radar - especially a radar mounted in a surface vessel or shore installation, as opposed to one in an aircraft. But even if a semi-sub diffuses its engines' hot exhaust through the sea rather than simply blowing it into the air it still has a noticeable infrared signature. More significantly, once the authorities have detected it, it has no means of escape.

A proper diesel-electric submarine like the one discovered at the weekend has the option of shutting down its engines and submerging fully to run on batteries. The sub is then completely invisible on radar and infrared: interdiction forces can then only locate it by using sonar, which is shorter-ranging, far less reliable, and very expensive to use on a large scale.

A modern military diesel-electric boat can travel some hundreds of miles on battery power, though with the disadvantage of moving at a crawl - it will travel less than a hundred miles in a day like this. Higher speeds are possible, but they slash range to a small fraction of the maximum.

The chances are that the Ecuadorian drug-sub had no such long-ranging fully submerged capabilities: it is probably only capable of shorter journeys entirely underwater, and intended to work in semi-submerged or surfaced mode much of the time, like a World War II German U-boat. In especially heavily watched waters, or if approached by law-enforcement units, the sub would dive and go slow on batteries, confident that it could no longer be followed.

In many ways the use of genuine subs to move drugs may have been seen as inevitable. The technology is far from difficult - such submarines came into military use well before World War I (in fact press photos show a distinct resemblance between the captured Ecuadorian boat and the Royal Navy's first submarine, Holland I).

There are hints that other proper subs are already in service with the drug lords. Colombian navy commander Admiral Hernando Will told AP that his patrols had seized 22 old style semi-submersibles last year, but this year so far only one.

The drug barons may find, however, that they need to raise their game further still in future. Most Western navies still maintain significant anti-submarine forces, which have been lacking any real employment ever since the Soviet sub fleet largely vanished from the world stage twenty years ago. Subhunting frigates and helicopters are already used routinely on anti-drugs patrols in the vicinity of central America; the specialists who operate them would love nothing more than a chance to tackle opposition a bit more tricky than go-fast speedboats. ®


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022