Senate Passes BIDEN Provisions to Tackle New Drug Trafficking Threat

Press Release

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: Sept. 26, 2008
Location: Washington, DC


Senate Passes BIDEN Provisions to Tackle New Drug Trafficking Threat

Bipartisan Legislation Takes Aim at the Use of Submarines to Smuggle Drugs

Last night the Senate passed provisions of U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr.'s (D-DE) Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 (S.3351), legislation to help disrupt drug trafficking by criminalizing the use of unregistered, stateless submersible or semi-submersible vessels in international waters whose operators intend to evade detection. The bill 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 - more easily evading detection and delivering drugs more than 3,500 miles away," said Sen. Biden, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. "If smugglers can pack tons of illegal drugs into these stealthy vessels, terrorists could carry weapons of mass destruction or other threats into our country the same way. This bill will help shut down this new mode of trafficking and keep more drugs off American streets—plain and simple."

In recent years, drug trafficking organizations have started using Self-Propelled Semi-Submersible watercraft (SPSSs) to transport large amounts of cocaine from Colombia to 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 generally recovered, the crew members 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. Recently, the Coast Guard has interdicted two SPSSs. On September 13, the Coast Guard successfully seized 7 tons of cocaine (valued at an estimated $187 million on the street) when it boarded an SPSS on a dangerous mission in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Just a few days later on September 17, the Coast Guard and Navy interdicted another SPSS with 7 more tons of cocaine off the coast of the Mexico-Guatemala border.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Office of National Drug Control Policy strongly support criminalizing this conduct. The final language was included in legislation sponsored Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), which adds civil penalties for SPSS operators (S.3598).

The final bill:

* Makes it a felony and provides for civil penalties against those who knowingly operate an unregistered SPSS 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.

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the bill in the next few days.