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How Drug Trafficking Methods Have Evolved to Supply America With Cocaine

— October 27, 2022

Drug smuggling has begun to take the form of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) or simply drone submarines.

Planes, trains, and automobiles are the usual transportation methods in America. This is not only true for people getting from Point A to Point B; it’s also true for the illicit drug industry. A large portion of America’s drug supply is imported, so it has to make it into the country before it can be dispersed from state to state. This leaves an obvious but very difficult route of transportation: water. Trafficking drugs by sea is not as easy as it used to be, but technological advances have given opportunities for drug cartels to find new ways to get their job done. Here’s how cocaine is reaching America and what’s at stake.

Above the Surface

Many people might assume that the job is risky since cocaine production is expensive. They also might assume the street price is steep and that most stimulant drug users have switched to methamphetamine. While meth production is the largest produced stimulant drug in the United States, largely because of home meth labs, this does not mean cocaine is a thing of the past. Far from it. However, how cocaine and other drugs are smuggled into the United States grows more and more complex by the day. 

Early in the 21st century, small private vessels were used to traffic drugs into the United States. This largely included cocaine, but methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, and ecstasy (MDMA) were also part of the drug supply. While smaller vessels are less detectable and less suspicious by default, they still carry a risk that is not scalable for profits. It was ultimately an unsustainable method for drug trafficking. 

Next, large vessels became a favored choice because drugs could be smuggled into multiple cargo shipping containers and in much larger quantities than what could fit on small private boats. However, even those days are virtually gone, thanks to the countless drug busts over the years that keep shipping vessels under surveillance. 

Yet, this has not deterred the method of large ships from being used altogether. Insight Crime reports that various methods still exist for getting drugs from place to place on these large ships. Some include hiding drugs in the ship’s hull, inside the fuel tank, stuffed in empty torpedo hatches, buried inside the engine room, attached to the propeller, and even mounted inside the ship’s anchor compartment. These methods offer less chance of getting caught compared to checking the inside of shipping containers, and they also serve as creative ways to buy time and remain undetected if the drugs need to be thrown overboard during a search.  

Below the Surface?

But not all ocean-related drug travel takes place above the water’s surface. In July 2022, a 14-month-long operation in Spain finally uncovered a drug trafficking operation involving criminal gangs in Denmark, France, Italy, and Spain. No arrests were made aboard a large shipping vessel. Instead, these were submarines dubbed “narco-submarines.” Drug organizations paint these diesel or electric engine submarines the color of the ocean to blend in, and they can easily carry over $13 million in cocaine alone. Smaller operations typically require enough room on board to hold about four people, ensuring that the drugs reach their destination. Over the past few years, this has changed from a drug innovation to the new norm of drug trafficking, including supplies reaching America and Europe. 

Thanks to modern-day technology, these submarines are not only a threat because of their travel route below the surface but also because of more advanced versions made available and arguably less risky. Drug smuggling has begun to take the form of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) or simply drone submarines. These submarines can carry up to 440 pounds of illegal drugs, depending on the size, and no room is lost to accommodate people who would otherwise be inside the submarines. Since they have no one on board, this allows drug cartels to be much more aggressive in their methods, often sending these submarines in groups in case one or two of them are intercepted.

Drug Dealers Kidnap Grandparents to Retrieve Already Seized Cocaine
Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

While vessels can cost millions of dollars in production, the potential of tens and hundreds of millions in drug profits is worth the risk for these criminal organizations.  While each transport carries the added risk of getting caught and tracing these submarines back to the operation’s headquarters, the benefit is no human is on board to be arrested and taken in for questioning. It still comes with the risk of eventually getting caught and tracing things back to the source. Still, the risk is considerably less than older methods of drug trafficking, and that’s a risk that virtually any organization is willing to take. 

What’s the Risk Today? 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) stated at the close of 2020 that the problem of stimulant drugs has grown at such an alarming rate that we can no longer afford to only be concerned with the opioid drug crisis. But the problem of stimulant overdoses and deaths, to many people’s surprise, is not restricted to methamphetamine. It includes cocaine, the same cocaine that, despite the best efforts of authorities, is still managing to make it into the United States by sea. 

Nearly 17,000 people in the U.S. die from a cocaine overdose every year, and like alcohol, long-term cocaine use can greatly increase the risk of heart attack and/or stroke.  


National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019 May). What is Methamphetamine? Retrieved

United States Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center. (2010 February). Drug Movement Into and Within the United States. Retrieved

Insight Crime. (2021 Feb 20). Hide and Seek: How Drug Traffickers Get Creative at Sea. Retrieved

USA Today. (2021 October 28). ‘Narco-submarines’ play a growing role in ferrying drugs bound for the United States and elsewhere. Retrieved

Reuters. (2009 February 23). Colombian “coffins” run cocaine beneath the waves. Retrieved

United States Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida. (2021 September 13).  Six Colombian Nationals Plead Guilty To Conspiracy To Use “Narco-Submarines” To Smuggle Over 19,000 Kilograms Of Cocaine To The Sinaloa Cartel. Retrieved

CBS News. (2022 July 5). Drug-smuggling “drone submarines” seized for the first time in Spain. Retrieved

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020 November 12). Rising Stimulant Deaths Show that We Face More than Just an Opioid Crisis. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Guide to Alcohol Detox: Severity, Dangers, and Timeline. Retrieved

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021 April). What is Cocaine? Retrieved

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