Colombia Bolsters Fight Against Narco-Submarines

By Dialogo
May 02, 2011

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Hernando Willis, the commander of the Colombia’s Pacific Naval Force, said narco-traffickers throughout Latin America are using more sophisticated means to smuggle drugs.
“Without a doubt, [drug traffickers] are investing money and technology into achieving their goals,” Rear Admiral Willis said.
Willis said the use of narco-trafficking submarines and other submersible vehicles by gangs, cartels and organized crime organizations have made it more difficult for law enforcement agents to stop the flow of drugs throughout the region.
“We have noticed that the Colombian drug traffickers have increased their efforts to improve their submarines,” he said. “These vessels have a propeller, are up to 20 meters long, and can carry up to 7 tons of drugs and are completely submersible.”
It is unclear when the narco-traffickers first started using vessels that were at least semi-submersible to smuggle drugs.
But this is clear: The Colombian Navy intercepted its first semi-submersible vessel used to transport drugs in 1993, on the island of Providencia, off the Andean nation’s Atlantic coast.

Law enforcement agents have since found more than 60 semi-submersibles – all during raids of improvised shipyards on Colombia’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
One of the most notable confiscations occurred on Feb. 13 of this year in the city of Timbiquí in the department of Valle del Cauca, where military personnel seized the first fully submersible vessel in the Andean nation with the capacity to transport narcotics.
The submarine, which could reach a depth of nine feet (three meters), was discovered on the Timbiquí River. The 99-foot-long (30 meter) fiberglass vessel could accommodate a six-member crew, could carry up to eight tons of cocaine and featured two diesel engines, he said. The submarine also had an air conditioning unit and a 16 1/2-foot periscope.
The submarine was equipped to travel from Colombia to Mexico.
“The engines were already fully installed and ready to go,” said Col. Manuel Hurtado, chief of staff of Colombia’s Pacific Command, according to The Associated Press.
Hurtado said the vessel cost about US$2 million to construct.
Hurtado said law enforcement officials have confiscated at least 32 semi-submersible ships used to smuggle narcotics during the past decade, including 12 in 2010.

Before the turn of the century, submarines constructed by narco-traffickers couldn’t dive a depth of more than 10 meters. But now, the submarines can dip well below the surface, making them very difficult to detect.
“Throughout the years, we have been able to determine that the narco-traffickers have improved the aerodynamics and cargo capacity of these devices,” Willis said. “The strategy we adopted to fight this criminal activity was [to obtain] the support of coast guard forces across the whole American continent.”
He added: “These submarines can stay submerged up to 8 days, and they are difficult to detect because they have cameras and highly technological periscopes. But we can’t use that as an excuse in our fight against them. This year, we already have seized two of these vessels.”
The vessels also have gotten bigger. Instead of carrying a four-man crew, the newest vessels can transport 10 crew members and an average of 10 tons (20,000 pounds) of cocaine. The newest vessels also are much faster, have air conditioning, a navigation system and diesel engines.
“[Those who] participate in the building of these devices are peasants, lured by the opportunity to make easy money,” said Capt. Mario Rodríguez, former commander of Colombia’s Pacific Naval Force. “The shipyards are built in difficult and inaccessible areas of Colombian territory.”
Germán Ortíz, an analyst on narco-trafficking in Colombia, said that while nations have joined forces to combat narcotics traffickers, the drug cartels and gangs also have united.
“The key to victory for this issue has to be uniting the coast guard forces [throughout Latin] America,” he said. “It is not about just patrolling: The continent also has to have available a satellite used exclusively for this type of monitoring.”