Police in Spain have seized the first ‘narco sub’ built in Europe

Spain narco sub
A semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs, known as a “narco sub,” seized by Spain’s National Police in February 2020.

  • On March 12, Spanish police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to 2 tons of drugs.
  • It was the first known narco-submarine to have been built in Spain or in Europe and indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Authorities in Europe – already overwhelmed by a flood of cocaine arriving in cargo ships – now must face another smuggling method that has bedeviled law enforcement in the Americas: the “narco-submarine.”

On March 12, Spain’s National Police announced the seizure of a 9-meter semi-submersible vessel designed to transport up to two tons of drugs. The submarine was still in the process of being assembled when it was discovered in a warehouse in the country’s coastal province of Málaga.

It was the first known narco-submarine to have been constructed in Spain, according to police. Europol officials later confirmed that it was also the first seized sub have been built anywhere in Europe, saying that vessels intercepted in the past had been manufactured in Latin America.

The seizure came as part of an anti-drug operation carried out by Europol, with help from authorities in Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The trafficking group – which operated out of Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region and was composed of Spanish, Colombian and Dominican nationals – moved cocaine, hashish and marijuana across Europe. Between April 2020 and February 2021, a string of operations helped break up the network, resulting in 52 arrests and the seizure of over three tons of cocaine.

InSight Crime analysis

Spain narco sub cocaine drug smuggling
The Spanish civil guard tows a sunken submarine in northwest Spain, November 26, 2019. Authorities said it was the first time a sub was found to be used in drug trafficking in Spain.

The discovery of the first narco-submarine manufactured in Spain indicates that knowledge needed for building the vessels is possibly being exported.

Drug submarines have traditionally sailed up the Pacific from Colombia to the United States. The vessels first appeared in the late 1990s but really took off about a decade later, with improved designs and construction. Difficult to detect and able to carry large cocaine loads, the submarines continue to be a favored trafficking method.

During the first eight months of last year, 27 semi-submersible vessels were seized, Colombian Adm. Hernando Mattos reported. Fourteen were detected in Colombian waters, and another 13 in international waters.

Traffickers based in Europe, meanwhile, have principally relied on using shipping containers and human smugglers, known as drug mules, to distribute cocaine across the continent.

In 2019, however, the first submarine to cross the Atlantic was intercepted off the coast of Spain. And now the first narco-sub building site has been found in that country.

While the vessel was likely to be used to move drugs around Europe, rather than to make a long-haul trip, it is possible that South American traffickers have been sharing their technical expertise with counterparts in Europe.

At an online seminar earlier this month, InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott said that the technology and manufacturing know-how needed to construct drug submarines are being exported by criminal groups.

As drug seizures targeting shipping containers have risen, narco-submarines could become more attractive to traffickers, despite their high construction costs.

If that is the case, European authorities should prepare for anti-submarine operations such as those seen in the United States, where dramatic videos of guardsmen jumping on speeding vessels are not uncommon.

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Mexico’s tourist corridor is becoming a dream destination for drug traffickers

Playa del Carmen Quintana Roo Mexico police soldiers beach
Municipal police stand guard on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, January 17, 2017.

  • Recent high-profile drug plane interceptions suggest the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is growing as a drug-trafficking hub.
  • Most of the drugs are likely smuggled on to the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A recent string of high-profile drug plane interceptions suggests the once tranquil Mexican state of Quintana Roo is being increasingly relied upon as a drug trafficking hub.

On February 5, local media reports claimed a Cessna-type jet suspected of being used by drug traffickers had been found partially incinerated after it landed in the community of Nuevo Tabasco, close to Quintana Roo’s border with Campeche.

Military officials were present at the site, as it was suspected drugs transported by the plane might have been hidden in mountains surrounding the illegal landing spot, according to local media outlet, Quadratín Quintana Roo.

The report added that the aircraft had been detected by Mexico’s air force earlier that morning, before it was found partially destroyed hours later.

Last year, the state saw a number of irregular landings linked to drug trafficking.

In October, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed in a morning press conference that a plane carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine had landed at Chetumal Airport in southern Quintana Roo just hours earlier.

López Obrador reported that three suspicious jets had been detected entering Mexican airspace before they were swiftly pursued by members of the nation’s military and Secretary of National Defense. While one plane landed in Chetumal, with authorities subsequently detaining a member of its crew, the remaining two aircraft managed to evade authorities.

Mexico soldier Cancun
A Mexican soldier patrols a street in Cancun, August 19, 2007.

Military sources suggested the planes could have arrived in the state from Colombia or Venezuela, according to Sol Quintana Roo.

Last July, the state’s then-police chief, Alberto Capella, tweeted that a plane suspected of being involved in illicit activities had strikingly landed on a public highway in the municipality of Chunhuhub.

After consulting military sources, Milenio reported the Hawker 700 jet had initiated its journey in Venezuela, before landing on the Mexican road in broad daylight, where a truck was awaiting its descent. The media outlet added that authorities later found both vehicles abandoned, discovering just under half a ton of cocaine worth over $5.2 million left in the deserted truck.

Drug planes from Argentina and Colombia also disembarked in Quintana Roo last year.

Authorities intercepted an aircraft piloted by two Bolivian nationals traveling from Argentina to Mexico’s largely touristic Cozumel island in January 2020, seizing around a ton of cocaine in the process.

Some of those making such flights have reportedly managed to transport their illicit loads onward overland.

Most crews have evaded capture, despite being traced and pursued by authorities.

Just beyond Quintana Roo’s southern border, Belize has also seen such flights land illegally, as drugs are increasingly trafficked northward. On January 29 of this year, a clandestine aircraft carrying over 90 kilograms of suspected cocaine disembarked in the nation, with nine people detained following its descent, media outlet Amandala reported.

InSight Crime analysis

Mexico Cancun soldiers mall shooting
Mexican soldiers in a mall following reports of gunfire, in Cancun, January 17, 2017.

Illicit flights disembarking in the state have largely carried sizeable shipments of cocaine, ultimately fueled by record production of the drug in a host of South American countries including Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

While 2021 has only seen one such flight disembark in Quintana Roo so far, last year eight aircraft linked to drug trafficking were reported to have made irregular landings in the state, preceded by 2019’s staggering total of 14, according to the Quadratín Quintana Roo.

However, the media outlet added that Mexico’s air surveillance system – controlled by the nation’s air force – reports an average of three irregular flights made within the state’s boundaries per week.

Although cocaine has passed through Quintana Roo for decades, security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime that an increased number of drug flights landing in the state in recent years may be a product of the tightening land border between Mexico and Central American countries, as well as former US President Donald Trump’s pressure on the Mexican government to act in this respect.

Most of the drugs that are successfully transported on from Quintana Roo ultimately reach the US, while some are shipped to Europe or remain in Mexico for domestic production, according to Hope.

The analyst added that those who receive the cocaine in Quintana Roo may be linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG). The drugs may also be collected by residual members of the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, who have been known to operate in the state, Hope suggested.

InSight Crime reported on how Quintana Roo has seen an increase in violence related to organized crime of late, with independent cartels battling for control over lucrative drug distribution points. Such battles have been spilling over into events attended by tourists, allegedly including a music festival in Tulum last October.

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