Colombian National Navy Neutralizes Another Drug-Trafficking Semi-Submersible
By Dialogo May 19, 2016
So far this year, the Colombian National Navy has seized four semi-submersibles that drug traffickers were going to use to transport narcotics. The most recently confiscated vessel, which was 14 meters long, three meters wide, and could transport four tons of narcotics, occurred in the town of Candelilla de la Mar in the department of Nariño on May 13th.
The vessel, which had a diesel engine and was within days of being seaworthy, was seized along with 900 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride inside it. Forty-eight hours later, the National Navy destroyed a semi-submersible in a tributary of the Timba River in the municipality of Tumaco in Nariño. National Naval service members also detained six suspects who allegedly constructed the vessel.
The two seizures come about six weeks after the Navy confiscated a semi-submersible that was in its final stages of construction on April 3rd. The vessel, which was 15 meters long and three meters wide, would have been able to transport two tons of drugs once its engine had been installed.
About the same time, the Navy seized more than a ton of cocaine hydrochloride and three dinghies that held 20 parcels with 402 packets of drugs from an undisclosed location. Additionally, National Naval forces found 657 packets of drugs and 35 bins with 1,120 gallons of fuel at an illegal drop-off point near an area filled with heavy brush.
The year's first seizure of a semi-submersible occurred on March 1st, about 250 nautical miles west of the Colombia-Ecuador border, when National Navy service members captured four crew members –three Colombians and a Mexican– and confiscated 5,824 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride found aboard the vessel. Every 1,000 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride seized by Military or law enforcement agents cost narcotrafficking organizations about $32 million in proceeds from sales on the international market.
“Inspections, strategic patrols, obtaining and vetting information, and planning are, among many other steps, necessary for the success of an operation to neutralize a semi-submersible,” said Commander Pedro Prada, who heads the Coast Guard of the Pacific, adding that seizures of semi-submersibles require months of intelligence work.
Generally, semi-submersibles have a four-member crew: one who navigates; one who oversees the machinery and engines; one who monitors the cargo; and one so-called "captain," who knows the vessel's route. The "captain" receives $25,000 per trip, while other crew members make about $5,000, according to the National Navy.
What is a semi-submersible?
Also known as a “drug submarine,” a semi-submersible is an illegal, artisanal narcotrafficking sea vessel. They travel at speeds of 5 to 7 knots, have a cargo capacity of up to 15 tons, have single or dual engines, and in general, can house a four-person crew who spend one or two weeks on board traveling the 3,000-3,500 miles to Mexico or the United States. Less than a quarter of these semi-submarines’ hulls are exposed to the surface; they travel right under the water's surface – hence the name.
Since the beginning of the 1990s when the first semi-submersible was seized, the manufacturing techniques have improved to increase the vessels' cargo capacity. The vessel's body is a motorboat covered over with fiberglass. The hull is dark to camouflage the vessel at sea, and its corrugated texture facilitates the unloading of drugs. A small cabin rises out of the hull to provide visibility for the crew, and air is circulated through tubes.
The vessels cost between $500,000 to $1 million, according to the National Navy. Construction can last between 30-45 days in improvised factories capable of working on up to three semi-submarines at a time, employing around 30 workers.
“In general, construction is done a few kilometers from the coast to make it difficult to find," Cmdr. Prada stated. "We have discovered several [semi-submersibles] in the Saquianga National Natural Park and in other areas with thick vegetation and limited access."
Construction of a proper submarine that's capable of traveling completely below the surface of the water requires a far greater investment, specialized materials, and an expert workforce. “It is too labor-intensive and far too indiscreet for [narcotraffickers]," Cmdr. Prada explained. "So their alternative is constructing vessels that, even though they’re considerably smaller than a submarine, can carry five times more weight than a motorboat."
Semi-submersible, a drug-trafficking invention
Manufacturing of semi-submersibles began in the 1990s at the height of drug trafficking when drug cartels were at their zenith. They began as an alternative way to smuggle drugs from Colombia to the United States or Mexico. At the time, those countries’ authorities were beginning to monitor air transportation intensively, and go-fast boats were experiencing large losses due to ships sinking and because of how easy they were to detect.
Colombia's Navy found the first semi-submersible in its national territory on the island of Providencia in May 1993. The vessel was six meters long and could carry a ton of narcotics. A year later, the National Navy found a similar vessel – and they've continued to find semi-submersibles up and down Colombia's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Authorities have also found many semi-submersibles at sea through aerial detection.
Since 1993, Colombian authorities have seized 91 semi-submersibles that, for the most part, have been destroyed immediately. There was an uptick in 2009, when 20 such vessels were neutralized, coinciding with that year's Law No. 1311 – the Semi-Submarines Act. In 2015, authorities found five vessels, both in the latter stages of construction and at sea.
How they work
The Málaga Bay Naval Base in the department of Valle del Cauca houses some semi-submarines that have been discovered since the 90s. Though protocol demands that semi-submersibles be demolished as soon as they are found, the ones in Málaga were preserved for analysis.
In those models, the bow contained one or two fuel tanks, a cargo area, a cabin for the crew, and a machinery room. The vessels, which also possessed a generator to power the batteries feeding the communication and positioning equipment, did not have a bathroom.
By 2000, authorities began to encounter new models. Though semi-submersibles are silent, leave no wake, and are impossible to detect along the horizon, they are visible from the air. However, drug traffickers designed a hollowed-out torpedo that can hold between one and five tons of cocaine that's towed by a fishing boat.
The torpedo has a ballast system – meaning it can take water into chambers to lose flotation and can take in air for the opposite effect. It also has a positioning device, and can dive 30 meters deep thanks to a steel cable more than 200 meters long. It's also invisible from the air.
Narco-traffickers using buoys
Since the beginning of the decade, authorities have started to encounter unmanned semi-submersibles carrying one or two tons of drugs, in addition to high-tech buoys that can be recovered at sea by drug traffickers. “A great deal of the intelligence we work on for the Navy is directed at locating the sites where these units are being built, to prevent them from reaching the sea where it is difficult to find them," Cmdr. Prada said. "Our discoveries include semi-submarines as well as submersible torpedoes."
The most common route taken by semi-submersibles is from Saquianga Park in Nariño, south around the Galápagos Islands, towards the Gulf of Tehuantepec in Mexico. Sometimes, another ship will pick up the narcotics in a nearby sea, according to the National Navy's Pacific Coast Guard.
Though some semi-submersibles can be used for multiple trips, most are sunk by narcotraffickers after one trip. The vessels also are equipped with valves to allow them to take on water and sink if they are boarded by authorities.
Colombia goes after those associated with these vessels with the Semi-Submarines Act, which punishes those convicted of using, constructing, selling, or possessing a semi-submersible or submarine without proper authorization to between six and 12 years in prison and a fine between 1,000 to 50,000 times the current monthly minimum wage (SMLMV), which is currently $228.59. But the penalties are much stiffer if the semi-submersible or submarine is used to store, transport, or sell narcotics or drug-producing materials, as those convicted face between eight to 14 years in prison and a fine of up to 70,000 times the SMLMV.
Colombia has security cooperation agreements with countries in Central, North, and South America to be more effective in locating these units and arresting drug traffickers.