Conflict & Justice

Smuggling drugs in submarines

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(Photo: Colombian Navy)

By John Otis

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One of the main reasons the drug war has dragged on for so long is because traffickers are always coming up with new tricks to fool anti-narcotics agents. You can see the evolution of maritime drug smuggling at Colombia's main naval base at Bahia Malaga on the Pacific coast. The main pier is packed with captured fishing trawlers and high-speed cigarette boats once favored by traffickers.

There is also a handful of enclosed vessels with pipes and snorkels sticking out at odd angles. But don't let the Dr. Seuss design fool you. Captain Norberto Benavides said these so-called "semi-submersibles" were built to transport tons of cocaine.

"These are semi-submersibles that didn't make it through," Benavides said. "They were detected."

Semi-submersibles are sealed boats that travel just below the ocean's surface; only air and exhaust pipes, plus a navigational dome stick out of the water. These semi-subs leave tiny wakes and are extremely difficult to spot. They're also low-cost. After making drug deliveries off the Mexican coast, traffickers scuttle the semi-subs because that's cheaper and safer than driving them back to Colombia.

Still, US and Colombian authorities have gotten better at tracking semi-subs, and that's led to the latest technological innovation in cocaine smuggling.

Last year, for the first time, authorities captured a fully submersible submarine built by drug traffickers in Ecuador just south of the Colombian border. Then, in February, Colombian authorities discovered a second drug sub under construction. Now it's docked at the naval base here in Bahia Malaga. In the submarine's stern, Navy Lt. Fernando Monroy points to a 345-horsepower diesel engine and tanks that can hold 1,700 gallons of fuel. The submarine also carries ballast and compressed air tanks, bunk beds, a global positioning system, and a night-vision camera.

Monroy also points out a storage compartment in the bow with space for eight tons of cocaine. He said he fears that drug submarines are here to stay.

"We believe the smugglers will keep improving the technology, allowing them to make all their trips underwater," Monroy said.

Colombian officials say they believe the submarine required several months to build, and cost around $4 million. Yet it's hardly state-of-the art. The 70-foot-long body was fashioned from supplies you could buy at Home Depot: fiberglass, wood, and PVC tubing.

It's also small, about the same size as a semi-sub. Once packed with cocaine, fuel and food, there wouldn't be much room left for the four crew members.

A Colombian fishing boat captain said he made three trips to Mexico at the helm of drug-laden semi-subs, earning $300,000 per trip. He described living conditions during those two-week voyages as "hellish." He said there was no toilet. "Vapors from excrement, cocaine and diesel made it difficult to eat, sleep and breath."

The captain, who asked not to be identified, said they rarely stopped because stationary semi-subs are easier to detect. Jay Bergman, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration's Andean division, said it's a whole new challenge. "Without question, it has us all going back to the textbooks and the drawing boards and figuring out what are we going to do about this."

Bergman pointed out that so far, no drug submarines have been detected under the sea. But seizures of semi-submersibles have dropped dramatically in the past two years. That could mean that traffickers have already made the switch to submarines — and that they're eluding detection.

"For the analyst looking at emerging threats," Bergman said, "when they see this precipitous drop in semi-submersibles and then the advent of these two submarines, there's concern that's raised: What are we missing?"

US and Colombian officials said they will make the necessary adjustments to target submarines.

Meantime, there's no shortage of people willing to risk their lives on board the drug subs. Many cocaine traffickers are based in the Pacific port of Buenaventura, where poverty and unemployment are high. So fishermen sometimes agree to work as maritime smugglers, like the semi-sub captain who made three runs to Mexico.

The captain said he was recently offered a half-million dollars to make another trip to Mexico, but he turned it down. "I told them: 'Thank you very much. I wish you all the luck in the world. But I'm not interested.'"

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