Senate Gives Coast Guard Increased Authority to Interdict Submarines Smuggling Drugs into the United States

September 26, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Senate last night passed by unanimous consent S.3598, the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act. S. 3598 is sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), and co-sponsored by Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Biden (D-Del.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).

As amended, S. 3598 would designate the operation of self-propelled submersible and semi-submersible vessels (SPSS) vessels without nationality as illegal and a threat to “the security of the United States.”  The bill establishes civil and criminal penalties for violating the law.  Enactment of the bill would allow the Coast Guard or other federal interdiction authorities to interdict and arrest persons using, navigating, or operating SPSS vessels without nationality.  

“The current situation is unacceptable, allowing drug traffickers to smuggle in thousands of pounds of illegal drugs in one trip,” said Senator Inouye. “This bill gives the Coast Guard the additional authority it needs to more effectively combat the growing threat posed to the security of the United States by these semi-submersible vessels and will allow for more direct and decisive actions to be taken against them.”

The bill comes in response to drug smugglers having developed a new method of trafficking narcotics into the United States with the use of self-propelled semi-submersible vessels. SPSS vessels are capable of operating below the surface of the water.  Traffickers began using SPSS vessels in the early 1990s, but at that time the vessels’ travel distance was limited. With advances in ship building capabilities, traffickers have been able to build vessels that can carry much larger loads and travel greater distances.  Current routes used by traffickers operating SPSS vessels allow them to leave from both coasts of South America and travel to the United States. 

The threat created by SPSS vessels is rapidly growing. From fiscal year (FY) 2001 through FY 2007, 23 incidents involving SPSS vessels were known to have occurred. In FY 2008, 29 incidents have occurred to date.  The Coast Guard estimates that “SPSS are responsible for the movement of nearly 32 percent of all cocaine” between Colombia and the United States. SPSS operators sink their vessels when law enforcement approaches. This affects the ability to prosecute as well as the rate of removal and seizures.

The SPSS vessels trafficking narcotics are not registered vessels of a flag state. One of the fundamental concepts of customary international maritime law is the principle of “exclusive flag State jurisdiction.” This principle means that a vessel exercising freedom of navigation in international waters is subject only to the jurisdiction of the flag State. Such vessels are not subject to boarding, search, seizure, or arrest by any nation other than their flag State, unless one of a limited number of jurisdictional exceptions applies. Under such a regime, a vessel that is without nationality and operating in international waters is subject to the jurisdiction of the nation in whose waters it is located. The legislation would define what is considered a submersible or semi-submersible vessel without nationality and would prohibit individuals from operating such a vessel. It would designate their operation as a threat to national security.