Yesterday afternoon, in a complete break with tradition I watched a fascinating programme on the television:
Or something like that. It featured stories from the ‘WOD’ in Columbia, with DEA agents tracking through the mountains and jungles looking for dry docks, where Coca smugglers build the Drug Subs of the title. Yes, that’s right, submarines, built in the mountains in the middle of the jungles and swamps and then used to smuggle cocaine into North America, tonnes at a time The ingenuity of humans never ceases to amaze me. These guys build submarines -submarines!- in the middle of the jungle, miles away from civilization in very difficult terrain, load them up with cocaine, float them through the mangroves and into the river and then across the ocean.
An arms race has developed between the coca growers and the authorities. Originally, the vehicles were simple torpedo-shaped submersibles, fixed to the back of fishing boats (either with or without the knowledge of the fishermen) and retrieved by waiting teams of divers. Once these started to be detected, the smugglers started stepping it up a notch and have now progressed to building re-usable, powered, air-conditioned(!) semi-submersibles like the one shown at the top. They are even paying attention to softening and streamlining the hulls to lower the radar/sonar signatures and building custom keels to reduce their wake. And they are doing all of this in shacks on a mountain!
The DEA and the Columbian authorities for their part have specialised teams of commandos searching through the jungle with helicopter support looking for the cocaine production sites and submarine dry-docks, with some success. They have constant helicopter patrols over the ocean and a highly-specialised detection boat, although as one of the agents said looking for a target the size of a desk (only the conning tower is above the water) in thousands of miles of ocean is no easy task.
As I said at the start, the ingenuity of humans never ceases to amaze me. Without the War On Drugs, Columbian peasants wouldn’t be building sophisticated ocean-going craft. In fact, were cocaine legal they would probably be living lives very similar to coffee- or tea-plantation workers. By the very illegality of cocaine, innovation and money has been brought to the mountains. People will innovate. If they can’t sell their product legally on the open market, they will still find ways to sell it. Increasing interdiction methods only leads to ever-greater levels of innovation. This is a message of hope, really. It shows us that whatever the efforts put in place by governments to make people do what they are told, people will do what people have always done, and find solutions and ways around problems. If that applies to people with nothing, living in mountains and jungles and cocking a snook at the superpower on their doorstep, then it also applies to those of us living in the towns and cities in the West, having our phone calls and emails snooped upon and being watched every minute by CCTV.
It’s not all good news though. It has also led to the coca growers aligning themselves with the FARC and so nasty commies are also getting a slice of the cash in return for discouraging the air and ground efforts of the DEA and Columbian government to attack these smugglers at source. Towards the end of the programme the DEA agents were heading into an area on a tip-off, looking for one of the major cocaine processing plants and had to turn back, their helicopter coming under sustained and heavy fire from the ground. Would the FARC even exist without cocaine dollars?
The War On Drugs cannot be won. While it is having beneficial effects like letting loose the creativity of those attempting to smuggle, the costs of supply, distribution and profit being in the hands of criminals and communist revolutionaries far outweigh them. Were cocaine legal, plantation workers would lead peaceful lives (without their homes being blown up by DEA agents) and the profits would stay in the legal economy and out of the hands of dangerous people like the cartels and the FARC.