It's easy to see why drug smugglers love the sea. For one, it's huge. Authorities can't patrol all of it, static sensors are expensive to support, and criminals can toss evidence overboard in a pinch.
Crafty cartels make billions of dollars sending small, swift boats loaded with narcotics from Latin America to the United States. Coast Guard and Navy ships patrol the Caribbean and capture a lot of them every year — but most slip through.
Now the Coast Guard has been alerted to a new model of smuggling boat.
A recent issue of Dialogo — a newspaper run by the Pentagon's Southern Command — detailed the craft. It's called the Picuda. According to Dialogo it's "a wave-breaking go-fast wonder that defies radar detection."
It's a fancy boat, to be sure, but it's not the game-changer Dialogo claimed.
The use of water routes to transport illicit substances is an ancient practice. Before the modern drug war, smugglers used smaller and faster boats to haul rum during Prohibition-era America.
These rum-runners were mostly converted merchant vessels and yachts — acting as motherships. After running the booze from the Caribbean to a few miles off the Florida coast, smaller rum-runners would pick up the contraband and move it from ship to shore.
Over time, technology improved, booze became legal again and people wanted different substances imported.
The '60s and '70s saw the rum-runners change into cigarette boats. So called because they looked like cigarettes and often moved smokables from Cuba to Florida.
Drug cartels in South America — especially in Colombia — continue to use the little, fast vessels. Now in an amazing linguistic reduction, they're called go-fast boats. The Coast Guard seizes millions of dollars in drugs and cash off the go-fast boats every year.
The Picuda is the latest upgrade to the cartels' fleet. It's named after a tropical fish.
Older go-fast boats sported fiberglass hulls, which made them hard to pick up on the Coast Guard's radars. The Picuda is entirely fiberglass. There's a good chance sailors won't see a Picuda unless they're right on top of it.
The fiberglass body also makes the Picuda lighter — and much speedier.
A typical go-fast boat makes the trip from Jamaica to Costa Rica in three days. The Picuda does it in two.
Shorter trips means the Picuda uses less gas, and smugglers don't have to carry as much fuel. So the Picuda can carry more drugs than other go-fast boats.
The boat has a better design, too. It's thinner and longer than other go-fast boats, measuring between 32 to 38 feet. It has a square back end for added stability. And the vessel's long, thin length allows it to cut through the waves.
The Picuda presents a challenge for America's interdiction efforts. It's hard to win the war on drugs when the enemy keeps upping its game.
"As long as drug cartels continue to make astronomical earnings," a security analyst wrote in Dialogo. "It is likely their nautical technology will aid them in successfully trafficking drugs through the Caribbean."
But another expert isn't so sure. To her, the Picuda's fancy specifications sound a lot like … other go-fast boats.
"The Picudas aren't that much of a step up from the old-school cigarette boats," retired Air Force intelligence officer Sylvia Longmire told War Is Boring.
"Those are also mostly fiberglass, same length, similar speed capabilities and haul capacity," Longmire, who now writes books on border security, said. "Cigarettes actually can carry four engines with 1,000 horsepower total."
Dialogo claimed the Picuda can carry up to three engines, each about 200 horsepower. "A comparable fishing boat," the Southern Command analyst wrote. "May be equipped with single 50 horsepower motors or multiple motors of varying horsepower."
Which is a sneaky way for Southern Command to state that a comparable fishing boat — one not modified for smuggling — doesn't go as fast as a modified boat. Which should go without saying.
"The USCG has the same challenges in dealing with Picudas and tools for catching them," Longmire said. She noted the Coast Guard has its own go-fast boats, helicopters, and engine-disabling equipment.
"If we see significantly more maritime smuggling, I think it will be because of less funding and fewer USCG and Navy assets rather than the increased use of Picudas."
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