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Drug Mules Hate Submarines, But Cartels Insist on Using Them to Smuggle Fentanyl

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Just making contact with a submarine carries an extra measure of danger for a smuggler.

by Susan Katz Keating

Smugglers for the Chapitos branch of the Sinaloa Cartel balk when ordered to pull “submarine duty” along the group’s fentanyl trafficking routes, a security official told Soldier of Fortune.

“They hate the submarines,” the official said. “They don’t want to go near them. But the Chapitos insist on using them.”

The official has direct knowledge of investigations that factored into last year’s indictments against 28 members of the Sinaloa Cartel, including the “Chapitos,” the sons of incarcerated drug trafficker Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. 

During the course of the investigation into the cartel, the official learned some of the drug mules’ habits, along with likes and dislikes.

READ MORE about fentanyl inside the United States.

“No one likes the submarines,” the official said. “Unless you’re the drug lord who doesn’t have to encounter them.”

Just making contact with a submarine carries an extra measure of danger for a smuggler, in terms of longer loading times, and visibility.

“Subs draw attention,” the official said. Ordinary people don’t typically encounter submarines in daily life, and are apt to notice one if it surfaces. “Criminals don’t like it when that happens to them.” Additionally, the official said, the drug mules don’t want to travel aboard the underwater vessels.

“They’ve been exposed to enough gruesome death, I’m sure they all can envision themselves trapped underwater if something goes wrong,” the official said.

Submarines are not new to drug smuggling operations in Central America. In early 2022, one was caught after it passed through Colombian waters.

In that instance, the narco submarine, which had close to $150 million in drugs, was intercepted by Colombian authorities. More than 4,000 packages of cocaine were found inside the submarine, and were believed to be destined for a Mexico-based cartel.

The United States in 2019 impounded a similar submarine, nicknamed “Hijo del Diablo,” or, in English, “Son of the Devil.”

Prosecutors described the various methods the Chapitos allegedly use when transporting their illicit drug shipments.

The methods include cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, supply vessels, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, automobiles, and submarines.

“The mules try to avoid the submarines, but they do what they’re told,” the official said. “You don’t say no to the cartel.”

The Sinaloa Cartel is one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world and is largely responsible for the manufacturing and importing of fentanyl for distribution in the United States, according to the Justice Department. 

Fentanyl is a dangerous synthetic opioid that is more than 50 times more potent than heroin, the DOJ said. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, killing an estimated 196 Americans a day. 

About Susan Katz Keating

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