BIDEN Bill Fights New Drug Trafficking Threat

Press Release

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: July 29, 2008
Location: Washington, DC


BIDEN Bill Fights New Drug Trafficking Threat

Legislation Takes Aim at the Use of Submarines for Drug Trade; House Passes Key Biden Provisions Today

U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, introduced the Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 (S.3351), legislation designed to help disrupt drug trafficking by criminalizing the use of unregistered, un-flagged submersible or semi-submersible vessels in international waters whose operators intend to evade detection. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joined Sen. Biden in introducing this bill, which will give authorities a new tool to go after the drug lords who have been using this technology to avoid prosecution.

"Drug lords are finding new ways to traffic drugs every day - and we have to keep a step ahead of them. We've learned that drug dealers are using submarine-like watercraft to traffic drugs under water - more easily evading detection and delivering drugs up to 3,500 miles away," said Sen. Biden, a leader in tackling emerging drug threats. "If drug smugglers can pack tons of illegal drugs into these stealthy vessels, it's pretty clear that terrorists could carry weapons of mass destruction or other threats into our country this way. This bill will help shut down this new mode of trafficking."

In recent years, drug trafficking organizations have started using Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible watercraft (SPSSs) to transport large amounts of cocaine from Colombia to Central America, Mexico, and ultimately the United States. SPSSs are similar to submarines in that they can operate with a significant portion of their hull below the waterline, which makes them hard to detect. When the vessel operators realize they have been spotted by law enforcement, they can open a valve and scuttle the SPSSs by quickly flooding the watercraft. As a result, the SPSSs and any drugs on board quickly sink to an unrecoverable depth. The 3 to 4 man crew then jumps overboard. Since no narcotics are recovered, they avoid prosecution and law enforcement can only rescue them and return them to land.

The Coast Guard estimates that SPSS encounters have skyrocketed in recent years. Between 2001 and 2007, 23 identified SPSS drug smuggling events occurred. But between just October 1, 2007 and February 1, 2008, a reported 27 SPSS events resulted in an estimated 111 tons of cocaine being delivered. The Coast Guard predicts 85 SPSS events in fiscal year 2008 will carry 340 tons of cocaine.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Office of National Drug Control Policy strongly support criminalizing this conduct. The Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 builds on the good work of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Sen. Biden has pledged to continue to work with Sen. Lautenberg to get these measures enacted. Sen. Biden's bill specifically:

* Makes it a felony for those who knowingly or intentionally operate or embark in an SPSS that is without nationality and that is or has navigated in international waters, with the intent to evade detection;

* Protects researchers, explorers, or others who may legitimately be operating an SPSS for a lawful purpose by adding a robust affirmative defense for such conduct; and

* Directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to establish sentencing guidelines to provide for appropriate penalties for persons convicted of this offense, including taking into account aggravating and mitigating factors associated with the offense.

These Biden provisions were added to the House version of this bill (H.R. 6295), which passed the House of Representatives today.