Prohibition is the mother of criminal ingenuity. When the U.S. banned alcohol, bootleggers came up with all kinds of tricky innovations to get their booze past the feds and into the mouths of a thirsty public.
Today, the drug war has given birth to genius inventions like the pneumatic pot cannon (see slide two). In this gallery, we’ve rounded up the five most absurd and outrageous machines smugglers have used to dodge border patrol and coast guard to meet the huge black market demand.
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A Pot Catapult
The easiest way to get drugs over a fence? Catapults! It’s a medieval technology, but a strong one. Without a need for fuel or anything more than basic kinetic energy, this drug catapult captured by Mexican authorities in early 2011 does one thing, and one thing well: hurl packages of marijuana over a 21-foot-tall fence. The problem with using a catapult for drug smuggling? It only does the one thing. People still have to get the drugs close to the border place, make sure someone on the other side knows where to pick it up, and do all of this without being caught. On upside, a catapult is pretty cheap to make, being mostly wood, and can safely be left out in broad daylight without specific risk of detection.
Pneumatic Pot Cannon
Catapults are soooo 1008. If you really want to step up the “launching drugs over a border with antiquated technology” game, best to go with a significantly more modern cannon. Not a gunpowder cannon—that’d destroy the payload in a dank fog of mistakes. Instead, it’s a pneumatic cannon, which uses carbon dioxide cartridges to propel a package in this case at least 500 feet. Why a cannon over a catapult? It has a longer range, which gives a few hundred feet in advantage over the catapult for where it places the elicit package. The disadvantages remain the same—the cannon has to get pretty close to the border, and pick-up inside the country needs coordination. The cannon just shoots packages of drugs slightly farther.
Cocaine Seized from a Go-Fast Boat
The United States/Mexico land border isn’t the only way to get drugs past interdiction efforts and to the stateside dealers. The Caribbean has long been a home to ne’er-do-wells, pirates and smugglers. In the 1970s and 1980s, the preferred technique for getting cocaine from South America in the hands and noses of people in Miami and elsewhere in the United States. Basically converted spedboats, they are small enough so that it’s hard for radar to find them and fast enough to avoid many patrol ships. Because they carry a very expensive per-ounce drug like cocaine, their minimal cargo space means they can more than pay their cost back in sales on the ground. Use of fast boats to evade the U.S. Coast Guard dates back to the existence of both fast boats and the Coast Guard, so this is a pretty dated technique, and the Coast Guard has spent its entire existence figuring out how to stop them. They’ve gotten quite good at this job, which has led to more clever innovations.
With go-fast boats a known quantity, drug smugglers needed another way to get drugs, primarily cocaine, from Central and South America into the States without detection. If the Coast Guard can find smugglers above the water, drug runners were going to have just go underwater. Narcosubs have followed a similar evolution to perfectly legal submersibles, but on a much shorter time scale. The first drug smuggling submersibles from around 1993 are barely what we’d call a submarine but would probably be familiar to Confederate soldiers. Semi-submersibles, which keep most of their body under water, have to stay just below the surface for almost the entirety of operation, only submerging to attack to escape an attacker. In smuggling operations, they proved even harder than go-fast boats for the coast guard detect. But these early narco subs had their fair share of problems. Made as they were by amateurs in jungles and away from the prying eye of the law, their construction was rudimentary, and their design accommodated cargo, not people. As technology tends to, the design of narco subs have improved immensely from the early semi-subs. And it helps that their mission is highly profitable. Costing about $1 million to make, a 100 foot long sub can be filled with enough cocaine to make back that investment 150 times a trip. These new subs are fully submersible, improving their chances of evading detection and increasingly the value of that investment. Given how hard they are to detect in the water, the DEA and local authorities have taken to hunting them down at the jungle drydocks where they are made.
Smuggling by Ultralight
And of course, there’s always the option of just flying the drugs directly over the border. Provided, that is, there’s a daring pilot, an ultralight airplane, and a discreet drop zone. First spotted in 2008, drug smuggling by ultralight is now a major way around the U.S./Mexico border fence. Ultralights, tiny airplanes that at most weigh 254 pounds without a pilot, are a poor way to deliver cargo by most standards. Their carrying capacity is extremely limited, so they often need jockey-sized pilots. They cannot travel in strong winds. Crossing the border, it’s immediately obvious that they are smugglers and not hobbyists. It’s also, in the United States, illegal to fly them at night (not that smugglers care). With a wall to get over, those black marks matter less. Sound from an ultralights’ small engine is masked by other ambient noise, like the engine of a Border Patrol truck. Ultralight aircraft travel slightly slower than a car on a freeway, but they aren’t stuck to roads. Flying at night without lights on, as most smugglers do, further decreases the chance of detection.