Colombian submarines, Mexican catapults, cross-border go-karts. With the worldwide drug trade worth more than most countries’ GDP, dealers' DIY smuggling strategies represent a lot of potential profit.
Smugglers use a myriad of well-known transportation techniques: pigeons loaded with little doses, human mulas or body stuffers, tunnels. (The most recent smuggler’s tunnel, built between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, USA, is a marvel of covert engineering: 8.5 meters deep and 572 meters long.) But the ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity of outlaw drug smugglers always give rise to new gadgets and tactics.
Here are three of the most recent innovations in DIY drug trafficking:
Going underwater may be one of the most common means by which drug traffickers move their wares from Colombia to Central and North America. In 2009, the police found and seized 17 smuggling vessels, including submarines and semi-submersibles. In 2010, ten were captured and in 2011, two. The reduced number of captures has led authorities to suggest that drug smugglers are becoming more sophisticated shipbuilders.
One of the last submarines captured by the Colombian navy, El Perla Negra, was made from reinforced steel and fiberglass, could dive up to 5 meters deep and swim for up to 10 days- enough time for a trip from Colombia to Central America and back without detection.
Drug ships are built by hand in makeshift workshops in the middle of the Choco jungle, a wild region of Colombia bordered by the Pacific Ocean. They are a weird mix of rusty old parts, uncertain engineering, and occasional high-tech equipment financed with dirty money, and the resulting ride is none too comfortable. Without bathrooms aboard, sailors live on canned food amid a stench of diesel, cocaine and feces.
If you can’t go under the border, try throwing your goods over it. In January 2011, border police in Arizona, USA were surveying the Mexico-USA frontier with their binoculars when they noticed four people in the distance, accompanied by an SUV and a catapult.
Built according to the engineering principles of medieval warfare, this Mexican drug catapult had been throwing 2-kilo packages of marijuana from Naco, a small Mexican border town, into Arizona, where local smugglers waited to pick up the projectile. Once notified, Mexican police arrived to confiscate the catapult, the SUV and the remaining 20 kilos of marijuana.
There are more police, more cameras, more dogs and higher walls along the Mexican-American frontier than ever before. Yet some intrepid smugglers continue to try to cross the border by land. The latest trend in this nearly impossible endeavor is go- karts. In February 2012, one go-kart, painted beige and attached to a homemade trailer, was spotted trying to cross the border near Yuma, Arizona. But authorities caught the hybrid vehicle, whose quick-footed driver abandoned his shipment of nearly 100 kilos of marijuana (valued at $108, 600) and vanished into the desert.
The bizarre inventiveness of drug smugglers belies a extremely successful and profitable drug market; more than 230 million people used an illicit drug at least once during the year 2010*, and the United Nations has estimated the worldwide drug trade to be worth $321.6 billion- more than the GDP of most countries.
*According to estimates in the 2012 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).