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Boats, Budget, and Boots: The Colombian Navy’s Challenges in International Cooperation

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Rafael Uribe Neira

Introduction

In recent years the Colombian Navy has undergone a well-planned but less-than-well executed modernization to exert sea control and counter regional threats in both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. After significant changes in doctrine and procurement, the institution still struggles to contribute to regional security despite being a key U.S. partner in the region. More than a decade of doctrinal transformations and a more determined role in international cooperation and defense diplomacy runs the risk of losing momentum and clarity. At least three issues speak of the encroaching challenges the navy must face in order to consolidate itself into what it calls a “medium regional force projection navy.” Serious problems in the procurement of new frigates, budgetary issues, and an oversized force structure are working against the navy’s ambitions. Because of the Colombian security forces’ resilience, and particularly the navy’s institutional capabilities, the country’s military has the potential to creatively adapt its scarce resources to provide security against common threats, but it is facing a string of obstacles along the way.

Colombia’s Success Story and the Role of the Navy 

The Colombian Navy has engaged in maritime security cooperation since the early 1990s through the signing of understanding agreements with the U.S. and regional navies to fight drug trafficking. By the mid-2000s, the value of international cooperation was institutionally acknowledged in the Naval Strategic Plans, but second to the need to counter domestic insurgencies and their sources of income. As with the other branches of the Colombian military, the actual value of international cooperation was mainly seen in the reception of security assistance rather than providing security in the international arena.

This trend, however, changed in 2008 with successes the security forces achieved against the insurgencies within the country. By 2009, the Ministry of Defense (MinDefensa) acknowledged the increasing value of the capabilities Colombian security forces gained in the fight against drug traffickers and guerrillas and its potential to offer solutions to similarly crisis-ridden countries worldwide. This has led to the acknowledgement that the Colombian Navy is not only a recipient of military aid, but also a net security provider and exporter. This has spurred its maritime ambitions. Through the Plan Estratégico Naval 2015-2018 (Naval Strategic Plan 2015-2018) and the Plan Naval de Desarrollo 2030 (Naval Development Plan 2030 or NDP 2030), the navy articulated for the first time the purpose of consolidating itself as a “medium regional force projection navy.” This plan, among other changes, devised a vision of the navy able to exert defense diplomacy, to take part in peacekeeping missions, and to export security in the form of training courses utilizing experience earned in longstanding internal conflicts against insurgencies.

Along with the continuing formulation of security and foreign policy, the Colombian Navy takes part in international naval exercises to signal its willingness to interact in multilateral security fora. Colombia has participated in in multinational exercises such as SIFOREX, UNITAS, RIMPAC, TRADEWINDS, and PANAMAX for years. The deployment of the offshore patrol vessel 7 de Agosto to the Horn of Africa to support the multinational force Atalanta and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield between 2015 and 2016 (although not officially part of it) marked a turning point. These deployments constituted a robust step to qualify Colombia as a NATO “Global Partner” in 2018 and establish the country as a reliable partner capable of providing counterterrorism and maritime security support.

Sailors from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam handle mooring lines from the Colombian navy corvette ARC Narino (CM-55) during its arrival for a scheduled port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tiarra Fulgham/Released)

Many of these transformations can also be understood as the result of sustained investment of U.S. security and economic aid. Since the late 1990s, plans such as Plan Colombia, now renamed Paz Colombia (Colombia Peace) and most recently Colombia Crece, (U.S.-Colombia Growth Initiative) this year have helped to train and modernize the military forces to the point of being considered a success story, whose results should and can be replicated in other parts of the region and the world. In this sense, Colombia stands as a reliable regional actor for U.S. foreign policy to provide security solutions in both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. However, such trends are not exempt from challenges and strategic uncertainty in the short and medium term.

Between Big Ambitions and Serious Drawbacks: Major Combat Vessels  

Colombia’s expansive ambition to assert itself as a capable regional security actor also meant a reevaluation of current and future naval assets. Since 2015, the Plan Orion, Plan Puente, and Plan Faro (Plans Orion, Bridge and Lighthouse) intended to replace Colombia’s aging major ships. As a result, the navy acquired two second-hand German Type 206A submarines from the German Navy in 2012 to replace the old, Italian SX-506 submarines, and modernized the two existent Type 209/1200 submarines. Additionally, it built three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) in Colombia with a license provided by the German shipyard Fassmer. Plan Faro also initiated what many consider the “crown jewel” of the Colombian Navy: the PES program.

The PES program stands for Plataforma Estratégica de Superficie (Strategic Surface Platform). It calls for the construction of up to eight frigates displacing 5,000 tons to replace the four German-made frigates of the Almirante Padilla class (FS 1500 – Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Kiel) currently in service.

However, some of these plans have suffered increasing delays. Only three out of four OPVs have been built and the PES project has reduced its scope and suffered delays despite only having reached the design phase. As a consequence, the new frigates projected will be limited to about 3,500 tons and their number will be reduced to only five vessels. They are no longer going to be built by 2027 or 2028 and no new date has been set. By 2019, there was no progress in the development of the PES project, as stated in COTECMAR’s 2019 report. So far the navy has put into service a donated South Korean corvette and declared the need to buy two second-hand frigates to fill the created gap. Among the possible candidates are Australian, Spanish, British Type 23, and German Bremen-Class (F-122) frigates. Any decision concerning the future selected vessels should take place next year, according to informed voices in Colombia close to the procurement process.

As stated in the Plan de Desarollo Naval 2042 (Naval Development Plan 2042 or NDP 2042) released earlier this year, the navy placed the PES program under the so-called PROCYON program. PROCYON (Fleet Building and Optimization Plan) also includes the PLOTEOS program which calls for the replacement of the four submarines in the silent fleet, the building of a logistics support ship, four additional patrol vessels, two amphibious transport docks, and at least one new maritime patrol airplane.

Vital to the success of these platforms is the growing shipyard industry and particularly COTECMAR (Science and Technology Corporation for the Development of Naval, Maritime and Riverine Industry), the state-owned shipyard company. The experience collected by the local maritime industry in the building of locally-designed riverine and seaworthy vessels contributes to work on the planned frigates and other major combatants. In Colombia, COTECMAR built Patrulleras de Apoyo Fluvial (Riverine Support Patrol Ships or PAF) type ships. The PAFs are domestically designed and used by the Colombian Marines for inshore security on the rivers and inland waters of Colombia, providing a cost-efficient solution for marines in domestic security operations.

The positive experiences earned at home with the PAFs helped raise the ambitions and scale of naval shipbuilding. In this sense, COTECMAR continued through the construction of coastal patrol vessels (CPV), three already-in-duty offshore patrol vessels (OPV) built between 2008 and 2017, and more recently an oceanographic vessel with Antarctic seagoing capabilities, as well as five Golfo de Tribugá class amphibious landing crafts (680 tons each). The Golfo de Tribugá class is particularly relevant, as it constitutes an international success for the Colombian shipyard industry. As important as the domestic market is, COTECMAR actively seeks to create new sources of revenue by selling crafts for dual-use, i.e. for civil and military purposes. Strategic partners such as Central American states procured amphibious landing crafts, which can be used for military operations or humanitarian aid relief operations. In 2019 and 2017, COTECMAR delivered two intercepting speed boats (Multi-Mission Interceptor 35 or MMI 35) used to fight drug trafficking and a logistics support vessel to the Honduran Naval Force for $13.5 million, as already discussed by Alejandro Wilder Sánchez on CIMSEC. A similar support vessel was sold to the Guatemalan Navy (Armada de Guatemala) for $11.7 million in 2019.

Despite these modest achievements, it remains to be seen whether the national industry will take root and be competitive in the coming years against well-established international shipyards. Additionally, and as Sánchez also pointed out, the low volume of orders from international markets puts Latin-American shipyards in dire need of establishing a brand. For the Colombian case this means that there is still a long way to go before COTECMAR and Colombian maritime ambitions can be credible actors in the region capable of building frigates. In consonance with the imperatives of such long-termed planning, the National Development Plan uses a timeframe of 20 years or five presidential administrations to replace its main surface and submarine vessels.

Budgetary Issues, Navy Size, and Security Cooperation

A more pressing difficulty in putting into motion the plans of constructing new platforms lies in the growing budgetary issues MinDefensa has faced in the last years. Although the Colombian budget for security and defense is the second largest in Latin America after Brazil’s at $10.8 billion (2019), military spending for procurement is dwindling. In fact, $466 million or about 4.3 percent of the defense budget was allocated for acquiring military hardware in 2019. In comparison, MinDefensa still allocated 9.1 percent to procurement in 2011, a number that diminished to 5 percent by 2017, according to a report on defense and security spending by the National Office of the Inspector General. For 2020, the budget for procurement further shrank to 2.9 percent.

The navy naturally does not escape this trend. While its budget has been relatively stable at between 6 percent and 7 percent of defense spending in Colombia, the share of procurement has steadily decreased as well. According to the NDP 2042, the navy invested 19 percent in the acquisition and replacement of new material in 2011. By 2019, that number had decreased to 10 percent. The bulk of navy spending is for personnel. During the same timeframe it grew from 57 percent to 69 percent. For the Armada Nacional, increased spending on personnel means fewer resources for procurement and other vital investments, which enable the projection of capabilities in the region.

Most worrisome is the fact that the navy does not seem to seriously tackle this issue in the NDP 2042. The institution puts its hopes in a budget it anticipates will increase in the future and which will result in a more competitive maritime market than the navy is currently boosting. The navy defines itself as a force, which will reduce its personnel spending by about 50 percent by 2042 without detailing how it plans to cut back and prioritize other items in the coming years. In practical terms, the navy expects the political leadership to increase its budget to put in motion the needed investments at some point in the future. Nevertheless, an economy hit with a worldwide pandemic and a resulting 15.7 percent loss in GDP makes that less than likely in the coming years.

Instead of pressing for a larger budget, it would make sense to reconsider the size and purpose of the Colombian Marine Corps, which makes up the bulk of the Colombian Navy. Traditionally used to combat insurgents, criminal organizations, and employed to extend the state’s reach in the most remote areas, the Colombian Marines do not possess relevant coastal defense capabilities or the required capabilities for amphibious power projection. When compared to similar forces in the region the Colombian Marine Corps is clearly oversized. According to a recent chapter in The Military Balance journal, the navy relies on a force of 56,400 men and women, while the Colombian Marines amount to almost half of that number: 22,250, which is larger than equivalent units such as the Brazilian (16,000) or the Mexican Marines (21,500). Offsetting this large size however is the fact that that the Colombian Navy does not use junior enlisted personnel and relies on marine conscripts for those jobs, inflating the size of the marine corps relative to the navy.

Although Colombian Marines also have the responsibility for securing all of Colombia’s considerable river system, which has over 18,000 kilometers of navigable waterways, many of their responsibilities overlap with those of the Colombian National Police and face the need to change with a transformation in domestic security. This naturally belongs to a larger discussion about the roles of the security forces after the 2016 peace agreement. Despite its disproportionate size, there is no plan to downsize the amphibious branches in the coming 20 years. The NDP 2042 mentions no restructuring other than increasing urgent capabilities.

Reducing the size of the naval infantry has the potential to free up valuable resources, which could be used to equip the force with specialized capabilities and deploy it to peacekeeping missions. Strengthening projects such as the building of two amphibious ships (LPDs) and the navy’s CENCOPAZ (Training Center for Peacekeeping) is a clear step in the right direction. CENCOPAZ co-leads the training of peacekeepers in Colombia and constitutes one of those national centers in which the Colombian security forces train to share their know-how in riverine operations, humanitarian de-mining, and anti-kidnapping.

Despite the progress in adapting the navy for more intense international cooperation, there are concerning trends it should seriously address. The projected LPDs are still in their conceptual stage and do not have the priority the PES program enjoys. Even with Colombia cooperating with NATO as a “Global Partner” as military-political enticement for international cooperation, plans to send navy peacekeepers as part of UN or NATO missions have seen little progress. Between 2014 and December 2019, MinDefensa reports 858 “certified soldiers” for peacekeeping operations out of 5,000 it originally planned to put through the training. The navy offers a slightly different number: in its 2015-2018 management report it states that CENCOPAZ trained 909 military, police, and civilian members in different courses for UN peacekeeping missions between 2015 and 2018, and points out that 687 (76 percent) come from the navy.

A Sober Look at the Future

The development of the Colombian Navy in the last decade has revealed an assertive regional naval force with the potential to evolve into a provider of regional security. This vision has materialized under the purpose of becoming a “medium regional force projection navy” with the right tools to exert sea control and cooperate with others to share what the Colombian military has learned during its historical fight against insurgencies and criminals.

All of this, however, seems to be at risk. There are at least three caveats to Colombian ambitions for international cooperation that are manifesting themselves in the navy. First, a well-structured procurement program intended to replace key combatants like frigates, has lost momentum. Second, naval defense spending leaves little leeway for the navy since manpower costs are hampering the ability to acquire the right tools to fulfill institutional missions. This, thirdly, intimately relates to the disproportionate size of the Colombian Marine Corps. They also have the potential to project the security solutions against terrorism and drug trafficking the national military is proud of, but can only be effective if they decrease in size.

In this context, the Armada Nacional should start thinking more about creating a slimmer and more effective navy in the face of political uncertainty, low budgets, and probably a long-lasting pandemic in Latin America. Otherwise, it may compromise its future of securing peace through international cooperation. 

Rafael Uribe Neira graduated in Juny 2020 with distinction from M.A. Peace and Conflict Studies at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. He focuses his research on civil-military relations, narratives in security aid, and lots of pop culture. Since his time as a research assistant at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) in the fall of 2018 and as an intern at the UN in Colombia in Winter 2018/2019, he developed a keen interest in the Caribbean and its global ties. Follow him on Twitter @RafaelUribeN.

Featured Image: Colombian Marines board an amphibious assault vehicle at the beach in Ancon, Peru, July 16, 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)

Determining Success: TRADEWINDS 2015 and Lessons Learned

By W. Alejandro Sanchez.

Between May 31 and June 24 of this year, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) carried out joint naval exercises with its partners in the Greater Caribbean. The annual exercises, known as TRADEWINDS, brought together units from over a dozen countries. Without a doubt, multinational military exercises are useful as the personnel involved in the maneuvers learn new techniques from each other as well as how to work together. Nevertheless, a major concern is how well the lessons learned are properly applied to real-world operations.

The Exercises

TRADEWINDS 2015, the 31st iteration of these month-long exercises, took place in two phases: first in Saint Kitts and Nevis and then in Belize. U.S military personnel trained with their counterparts from 18 other nations, including Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, nations from the Greater Caribbean, Mexico, and even overseas partners like the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (which both have territories in the Caribbean). Caribbean multinational agencies also present included the Regional Security System (RSS), the Regional Intelligence Fusion Center (RIFC), and the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), among others. According to SOUTHCOM, the exercises were aimed at strengthening “the capacity of Caribbean nations to respond to natural disasters, humanitarian crises and counter transnational organized crime.”

There have been several reports that enumerate and explain the nature of the exercise. For example, off the coast of Belize, the navies from Belize, Mexico and the United Kingdom carried out a simulated vessel boarding, search, and seizure operation. Mexican naval personnel from the Mexican Navy ship ARM Independencia, travelling in an interceptor boat, boarded the British vessel the HMS Severn and “simulated [the] arrests of a group of merchant mariners who tried to resist.” Other exercises included crowd control, safety techniques like clearing buildings, and gunnery with a 50-caliber

Members of the Dominican Navy participate in .50 cal exercises aboard a USCG Cutter. (Source: USCG)
Members of the Dominican Navy participate in .50 cal exercises aboard a USCG Cutter. (Source: USCG)

machine gun. A June 10 video posted in the Coast Guard Compass, the official blog of the U.S. Coast Guard, shows USCG personnel aboard a patrol boat from Grenada, explaining various techniques to their counterparts regarding how to understand the sea states and navigate effectively as they pursue a suspicious vessel.

In addition to praise from SOUTHCOM, the exercise has enjoyed the public endorsement and support from various Caribbean governments. For example ZIZ News, a Saint Kitts news agency, quoted Captain Kayode Sutton of the St. Kitts and Nevis Defence Force as saying, “the support from the government [in Basseterre] has been tremendous… Mr. Osbert DeSuza, the Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister… visited the Exercise Control Centre and he received a brief as to what is going on for the entire exercise, the training, all the exercises that are going on right now.” Meanwhile, Guyana deployed its navy’s flagship, the GDFS Essequibo, to the exercise’s maritime phase, highlighting Georgetown’s commitment to display the best it has to offer to operate along its regional allies.

How to Determine Success?                                                    

During the TRADEWINDS 2015 opening ceremony in Saint Kitts, Lt. Col. Patrick E. Wallace, commander of the

Lt. Col. Wallace addresses partner nations as part of the 2015 Opening Ceremonies (Source: SOUTHCOM)
Lt. Col. Wallace addresses partner nations as part of the 2015 Opening Ceremonies (Source: SOUTHCOM)

St. Kitts and Nevis Defense Force, declared, “I stress that the knowledge and skill that comes from this exercise is essential … However, just as important, is the strengthening of multi-nation

Mexico's ARM Independencia. The vessel participated extensively in this year's TRADEWINDS exercise.
Mexico’s ARM Independencia. The vessel participated extensively in this year’s TRADEWINDS exercise.

nating with each other will be similarly successful in real life-or-death situations. As one retired Colonel from the Peruvian military told me, “ultimately, the only way to know if an exercise is successful is if you test the lessons in real life.”

Making a multinational exercise successful so it can be properly applied in the real world includes coming up with realistic scenarios, as explained to this author by John Cope, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He suggests that what’s needed are  “players (other than the US) had a major role in shaping the exercise scenario and the organization of the event so that the exercise emphasizes what they see as their needs rather than what the US/SOUTHCOM thinks are their needs, also the non-US players assume important positions in the structure of the exercise.”

A SOUTHCOM press release announcing the beginning of the exercises went over the two operational phases of TRADEWINDS 2015. But there is also a third phase, the “Key Leader Seminar,” designed to facilitate a discussion of the other phases and the way ahead. Ideally, a comprehensive report will be drafted regarding the lessons learned, as well as lessons that still need to be fully learned, from TRADEWINDS 2015. (In the interests of full-disclosure: in preparation for this commentary, I contacted SOUTHCOM for further information on the lessons learned aspect of TRADEWINDS 2015, but received no reply.)

Numerous military agencies, both U.S. and international, have published reports discussing how to properly adapt lessons learned from both exercises and operations. As the Establishing a Lessons Learned Program Handbook by the Center for Army Lessons Learned ponders, is a military organization “willing to openly discuss its mistakes, and is it willing to share those mistakes across organizational lines to make everyone better?” If not, it will be very difficult to implement an effective [Lessons Learned] program… The act of ‘saving face’ precludes individuals from admitting their mistakes.”

Hopefully phase 3 of TRADEWINDS 2015 included an open and honest discussion between representatives from the participating militaries, where there was not only praise for the event, but admitting, even if it was off the record, which areas they still need improving, in order to work in greater cohesion with the security forces of neighboring countries. Cope explains that, at least

A Coast Guard vessel from St. Kitts participates in a boarding exercise with a U.S. vessel. (Source: USCG Blog)
A Coast Guard vessel from St. Kitts participates in a boarding exercise with a U.S. vessel. (Source: USCG Blog)

regarding the Caribbean, a base for institutionalizing operational and tactical procedures and processes that worked during an exercise may already be standard across various regional states. “Where CARICOM countries are struggling to perfect common approaches is in standardizing procedures for strategic and operational planning and strategic/political decision making. Their comprehensive disaster management process and experience with the Cricket World Cup have helped Caribbean countries, but leaders continually change.”

A PR Campaign?

Part of the problem may be simply a lack of a consistent PR campaign by regional navies (and security forces in general) to highlight the effectiveness of exercises. In other words, if a narco-speedboat is detained in the Caribbean by units of the U.S. and Jamaican coast guard services, it would be helpful if a subsequent press release could tie the hypothetical successful operation with lessons learned from TRADEWINDS. Another initiative would be to invite high-ranking government officials as well as journalists and other experts to the exercises as they take place, as this would help showcase the level of cooperation militaries from different states can achieve. This would have the added benefit of serving as a prime example to support similar exercises in the future.

At a time of budget constraints and with SOUTHCOM being the lowest-priority command center in the U.S. military, said agency needs to better demonstrate to Washington that its activities, including multinational exercises, are beneficial for both U.S. and regional security.

Concluding Thoughts

This discussion is not meant to question the validity of TRADEWINDS specifically, but rather to address multinational military exercises in general. The U.S. conducts quite a number of these in the Western Hemisphere, such as UNITAS, PANAMAX, Continuing Promise, and Beyond the Horizon/New Horizons.

Multinational exercises are important but a strong link has yet to be made between a successful naval exercise (i.e. in which units from two nations operate together to stop a suspicious vessel in the Caribbean), and whether the lessons learned from said simulation were successfully applied in the real world. Given the ongoing amounts of drug trafficking that flow through Caribbean waters, putting these lessons learned to the test would not be difficult.

Ultimately, SOUTHCOM is not lacking in exercises to increase its relations with regional allies in the Greater Caribbean and rest of Latin America; but it seems that the agency could do with a better PR campaign to explain how effective these exercises are in the long run.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

U.S. SOUTHCOM vs. Caribbean Narco-Pirates

By W. Alejandro Sanchez.

On March 12, 2015, Marine General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), testified before the Armed Services Committee about the security challenges that the United States and its Western Hemispheric allies face throughout the continent. In his Posture Statement, the general noted that SOUTHCOM is the U.S. military’s “lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, hence the maxim ‘doing less with less’ has a disproportionate effect on our operations, exercises, and engagement activities.”

One particular focus of General Kelly’s remarks was transnational crime, specifically drug trafficking that originates in South America and crosses the Greater Caribbean towards the United States. There are several types of transnational crime occurring throughout Caribbean waters; due to space constraints, this commentary will only focus on the transportation methods utilized to move drugs throughout the Caribbean Sea and what this means for the security of the United States and its allies.

Low Priority & Insufficient Assets?

In his Posture Statement, General Kelly stated that Washington’s allies in the Western Hemisphere “are frustrated by what they perceive as the low prioritization of Latin America on our national security and foreign policy agendas, which is especially puzzling given the shared challenge of transnational organized crime.”It is not surprising that Latin America and the Caribbean are a low security priority for the United States, as the White House has had to deal with security crises elsewhere over the past years, such as the conflict in Ukraine, tensions with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Islamic State. Moreover, sequestration and other defense budget cuts have forced SOUTHCOM to try to do more, or at least the same as before, with less funds. The SOUTHCOM commander went on to explain how “force allocation cuts by the Services… are having the greatest impact… We are already feeling the impact at our headquarters, where we have implemented a 13% reduction in civilian billets and an 11% reduction in military ones.”

A similar situation is occurring with the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a wide area of operations in the

A USCG counter-narcotics operation
A USCG counter-narcotics operation

Caribbean. For the USCG, one immediate challenge is upgrading its aging equipment. Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s Commandant, stated in April, “much of the Coast Guard’s infrastructure and many of our platforms are well beyond their service life.”

Both the SOUTHCOM commander and the Coast Guard Commandant have pointed out the challenge that transnational organized crime (TOCs), e.g. drug trafficking organizations, pose to U.S. security. General Kelly has highlighted the types of illegal goods that criminals are moving throughout the Western Hemisphere, like“drugs—including marijuana, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine—small arms and explosives, precursor chemicals, illegally mined gold, counterfeit goods, people, and other contraband.” Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s 2014 security blueprint, the Western Hemisphere Strategy (WHS), explains how “organizations are able to quickly adapt to changes in their external environment, including everything from advances in technology to an increase in law enforcement activity… As maritime trade and travel have grown, criminal organizations have taken to the sea, using complex operations and tactics to avoid detection while in transit.” (Click here for an analysis of the Coast Guard’s WHS).

In other words, both Southern Command and the Coast Guard are well aware of the challenges posed by TOCs. However, defense cuts and other security priorities are affecting how well these agencies, among others, can play a role in improving security in the region. The United States’ Caribbean allies and extra-hemispheric partners (like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) are actively working to crack down on Caribbean drug trafficking. However, given that the United States is the final destination for most of the drugs being moved around the Caribbean Sea, and given the still-limited resources of Caribbean states to stop drug trafficking through their territories (land and maritime), it would be ideal for U.S. security agencies to maintain a vibrant presence in the region, particularly since Caribbean drug trafficking entities have the funds, creativity, and willingness to constantly expand their methods of transporting drugs.

Narco-Methods of Transportation

As for criminals themselves, they are nothing if not (infuriatingly) resourceful and creative when it comes to thinking of new ways to move drugs across the Caribbean. As a disclaimer, I must highlight that one major obstacle with this analysis is that detailed information is sometimes not openly available regarding the specifications of narco-vessels. For example, U.S. Southern Command reported that the USS Kauffman, a frigate, interdicted 528 kg of cocaine aboard a vessel on June 17. Nevertheless, SOUTHCOM’s press release does not explain what kind of vessel it was, other than calling it a “narcotic-trafficking vessel in international waters in the Eastern Pacific” or a “suspected smuggling vessel.”

The information below about narco-vessels provide as much detailed information as this author has been able to find.

As part of my research for this report, I contacted the Implementation Agency for Crime And Security (IMPACS), a security branch of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM, an organization made up of 15 Caribbean states). CARICOM IMPACS explained that 80% of all illicit smuggling activity through the region that originated in South America is carried out through maritime means.

Speedboats / Go-boats: the standard method of transporting cargo. Just this past July, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless, “along with the assistance of a Netherlands Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft,”stopped a speedboat north of Aruba – on the vessel were six individuals carrying a cargo of 275 pounds of cocaine.

Narco Subs: The evolution of narco-submarines over the past two decades is quite remarkable. The first narco-sub was stopped in 1993 and it had a crude design: it was slow and made up of wood and fiberglass.

On July 18th, 2015 US Customs and Border Patrol agents along with USN and USCG counterparts seized a semi-submersible carrying 16,870 pounds of cocaine.
On July 18th, 2015 US Customs and Border Patrol agents along with USN and USCG counterparts seized a semi-submersible carrying 16,870 pounds of cocaine.

More modern narco-subs can be fully submersible, travel as fast as 11 miles per hour, with larger fuel tanks and space for cargo. Due to space issues, we cannot discuss the different types of narco-submarines. A comprehensive report by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) entitled “Narco Submarines: Specially Fabricated Vessels For Drug Smuggling Purposes” discusses them in detail, including estimated costs, separating them from semi-submersibles, low-profile vessels, and submarines. These vessels have become alarmingly popular in recent years, as the narco-traffickers have sufficient funds to construct them. Case in point, this past June 18, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard intercepted a “semi-submersible craft” that was carrying the whopping cargo of 16,870 pounds of cocaine.

Narco-Torpedos: One new technology is static narco-containers (AKA Parasitic Devices). The FMSO report defines them as “containers which are bolted or magnetically placed on the bottom of freighters and other large cargo ships by cartel and organized crime frogmen.”Narco-torpedoes were found on the hulls of ships going from Latin America to Europe in 2013. I have been unable to find current examples of such containers being utilized in the Caribbean, but it stands to reason that they could be utilized as well, particularly as there is a great flow of goods through Caribbean ports en route to the U.S. and elsewhere. Narco-subs and narco-torpedoes are the next evolution of drug trafficking in the region and, so far, there seems to be no limit to how large and equipped narco-subs can become.

Inside cargo/fishing ships: Unsurprisingly, hiding contraband aboard vessels that apparently are carrying legitimate operations, such as fishing, continues to be an option for drug traffickers. For example, in early 2014 a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter operating out of a British Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel, the Wave Knight, stopped a vessel that was carrying 45 bricks of cocaine. This is a memorable mission, not solely because of the amount of narcotics seized, but because this marked the first time that a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was launched from a British ship. That same year, on March 15, a fishing boat was seized off the coast of Panama. The U.S. Coast Guard investigated the vessel and found 97 bales of cocaine.

Finally, it is important to note that smuggling aboard vessels is more prevalent in some areas. CARICOM IMPACS explained to the author that smuggling among fishing vessels is common among members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (i.e. Dominica, Grenada or Saint Lucia) to French territories (i.e. Guadeloupe and Martinique) and Barbados. This is due to the fact that these nations have large fishing industries which are utilized as disguise for the flow of contraband.

Narco-Aircraft: Planes and helicopters are also utilized for moving drugs, though they seem to be less common than maritime methods of transportation.  According to CARICOM IMPACS, air smuggling accounts for approximately 20% of narcotics shipments in the region, mostly around the Bahamas due to its geographical proximity to Florida (with Haiti and the Dominican Republic utilized as springboards between the two). Throughout my research for this report, I was unable to find recent incidents of air smuggling throughout Caribbean islands. A geographically close incident occurred this past May; a narco-plane, a Hawker twin-engine jet, crashed off the Colombian coast as it tried to flee from the Colombian Air Force. The aircraft reportedly left Venezuela and entered Colombian air space – authorities found 1.2 metric tons of cocaine among the wreckage. As for narco-helicopters, in 2013 the Costa Rican police cracked down on a criminal group that utilized helicopters to transport weapons and drugs along the country’s Caribbean coast.

The aforementioned list exemplifies how drug trafficking organizations employ a wide array of vessels and aircraft to move their contraband from South America, through the Greater Caribbean, and ultimately to the United States and Europe. Part of the reason for this variety is that drug trafficking groups use an “island hopping” strategy to move the narcotics – for example, a speedboat carrying cocaine may leave Venezuela and dock in Curacao; from there it will be put in another vessel until it reaches a different island, and from there it may be transferred a third time before it attempts to enter U.S. territory.

Shootouts At Sea?

One issue worth discussing is that most press releases that report on stopping suspicious vessels discuss the incidents as generally non-violent, or they are one-sided violent. At most, we hear about security forces that fire shots at suspicious vessels. For example, in January 2014, the aforementioned helicopter, launched from the HMS Wave Knight, fired warning shots at the suspicious

HMS Wave Knight
HMS Wave Knight

vessel. “It was a unique and successful mission,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma. “We fired warning shots, and they tossed [the drug-filled] bails.” Meanwhile, a March 2014 operation included a Coast Guard helicopter shooting at the engines of a ship in order to stop it.

The interesting issue here is that both incidents include security personnel shooting at suspected drug traffickers but not the suspected criminals shooting back. There are some official videos available online of suspected drug smugglers being chased by U.S. security forces, but the footage seems to show the fleeing drug traffickers more than actively engaged in a firefight (video 1, video 2). Certainly, criminals have no problem shooting at security forces – just this past May, a Mexican military helicopter had to make an emergency landing when it was shot at by gunmen (three soldiers were killed). However, in the Caribbean, incidents of drug traffickers aboard speedboats shooting at security agencies appear to be less common (or at least, under-reported). Nevertheless, the possibility that drug traffickers could become more actively violent in order to evade capture–switching from a release cargo-and-flee strategy to actively shooting at security agents–is worrisome. (While this commentary focuses on drug trafficking, there is also an active weapons trade through Caribbean waters; hence it stands to reason that criminals could use weapons in their possession/cargo, such as rifles and handguns, to attack security agents trying to stop them).

Nowadays SOUTHCOM, U.S. Navy South/4th Fleet, and the U.S. Coast Guard must do “more with less” at a time when the U.S. defense budget is undergoing significant cuts, and, as General Kelly correctly points out, SOUTHCOM has the least priority of all the other U.S. military commands. On the other hand, drug trafficking criminals are constantly thinking of new, more ingenious ways to move their illegal merchandise across the Caribbean Sea. Spotting narco-vessels may become even more difficult in the near future, particularly if narco-subs become more advanced and if narco-torpedoes become more popular.

Moreover, drug traffickers may eventually decide to be bolder and shoot back at security forces rather than flee. This may be the case if a particular cargo is deemed as too expensive to be lost. I have been unable to find cases of narco-speedboats having built-in machine guns, but this is certainly a possibility.This is not meant as an alarmist declaration but rather an assessment of how the situation is evolving in the Greater Caribbean.

Concluding Thoughts

In his March 2015 Posture Statement to the Armed Services Committee, General Kelly declared,“I am frustrated by the lack of a comprehensive U.S. government effort to counter the [transnational organized crime] threat.” Documents like the 2014 Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy similarly explain the problem posed by TOCs, including those involved in drug trafficking, and the steps that can be taken to counteract them. The challenge nowadays for SOUTHCOM and the Coast Guard is having a budget that allows for the necessary personnel and equipment to carry out these objectives. General Kelly stated, “If sequestration returns in FY16, our ability to support national security objectives, including conducting many of our essential missions, will be significantly undermined. “

The goal of this analysis is not to imply that the U.S. government should give SOUTHCOM and/or the Coast Guard a blank check for obtaining new weapons. Nor should Washington solely focus on stopping the transportation of drugs through the Caribbean, while dismissing the other sides of the drug-equation, which includes demand (in the U.S. and European markets) and production (in South America). Rather, while the demand and production remain (unfortunately) vibrant, the interdiction of illegal narcotics among the various narco-corridors of the Greater Caribbean must remain a priority for SOUTHCOM and its supporting agencies like the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, just like it is a national security priority for Caribbean nations and and regional security agencies like CARICOM IMPACS.

While Washington does not regard developments in Latin America or the Greater Caribbean as a security priority (at least not comparable to developments elsewhere in the world), criminal organizations, particularly drug trafficking entities, continue to operate in areas like the Greater Caribbean. The list of vehicles used to transport drugs through that region demonstrates how drug trafficking groups continue to imagine creative new methods to move their illegal merchandise. Moreover, the rise of the narco-submarine is a problematic development as these vessels could become harder to spot in the near future, particularly as narcos have the funds to support their construction. The seizure of a narco-submarine just this past July is a clear example that narcos have not given up on these vessels.As General Kelly said, “criminal organizations are constantly adapting their methods for trafficking across our borders.”

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere.  The author would like to thank CARICOM IMPACS for their assistance with this project. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez