Colombian smugglers’ ‘drug subs’ show increasing sophistication
By Dialogo April 21, 2011It's amazing that these "merchants" of drugs, having succeeded in developing this technology, taking into account how formidable a submarine is as a weapon of war, we would have to be prepared, for these organizations to successfully face a regular army. It would be much better to legalize drugs, then they would pay taxes and the government could exercise effective control, although it would be huge blow to the international financial system.
BAHÍA MÁLAGA, Colombia — For years, it was rumored that Colombian smugglers
were transporting tons of cocaine aboard homemade submarines. But without hard
evidence, the scuttlebutt sounded like a Jules Verne fantasy, a sort of
Twenty-thousand kilos under the sea.
As it turns out, narco U-boats are all too real.
Ecuadorian police raided a clandestine jungle shipyard last year, just south
of the Colombian border, and impounded a 74-foot-long submarine capable of carrying
nine tons of cocaine to delivery points off the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central
America. Its hull was built of Kevlar and carbon-fiber. Its 249 lead-acid batteries
could power the diesel engine for 18 hours before the sub would have to resurface.
The Ecuadorian sub was no fluke. In February, Colombian authorities
confiscated a second fully submersible drug submarine. This 70-foot-long vessel was
spotted on an estuary to the Pacific and was about to make its maiden voyage.
Nearby, troops found 2.9 tons of cocaine.
“It was all ready to go,” says Colombian Navy Lt. Fernando Monroy, who
piloted the drug sub from its hiding place to Bahía Málaga, the Navy’s main base on
the Pacific. “Its tanks were filled with 1,700 gallons of diesel.”
“Drug traffickers have now literally done what many people thought was
unthinkable,” said Jay Berman, who heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s
Andean division. “They’ve invested enormous amounts of resources, money, manpower in
acquiring the technology to build submarines.”
He added: “Pictures do not do them justice. You have to see the subs to get a
perspective of how large they are and how much effort it takes to build them.”
With its sleek shape, rear fins, and conning tower, the Colombian drug sub
looks like a conventional submarine though it’s far smaller than most military
models. It’s also a hybrid of high- and low-technology. Rather than steel, the sub
is built from wood, fiberglass and PVC tubing, materials that are all widely
available and easily transportable to secret jungle dry docks.
Yet it exhibits a level of sophistication new to maritime smuggling. It's
been equipped with day and night vision cameras. In the stern sits a 346-horsepower
diesel engine. There are four bunk beds for the crew members, compressed air tanks,
touch screen controls, a GPS and satellite telephones.
Unlike the Ecuadorian sub which could move forward underwater, the Colombian
model was built to travel just below the surface, then cut its engines and dive down
30 feet or so to hide from interdiction vessels.
Submarines have been on the traffickers’ drawing board for years.
Back in 2000, Colombian authorities stumbled upon a half-built, double-hulled
submarine in a warehouse outside of Bogotá. The 78-foot vessel was designed to
descend to depths of more than 300 feet.
But in that case, drug mafia engineers may have bitten off more than they
could chew. Over the next decade, they settled upon a less-sophisticated watercraft:
the so-called semi-submersible.
These are airtight boats that ply the ocean with just a navigational dome and
air and exhaust pipes sticking out of the water at odd angles. They look like
something Dr. Seuss might have drawn but the homemade vessels have been highly
Semi-subs are easy to build and, at $500,000, they’re relatively cheap. As a
result, they are usually scuttled after just one mission because it’s more secure to
sink the boats on the high seas than steer them back to Colombia.
More importantly, their tiny wakes make them difficult to detect on radar. By
some estimates, more than half of all the cocaine leaving Colombia’s Pacific coast
in 2009 was shipped aboard semi-subs.
The semi-submersible marked the triumph of stealth over speed. In the 1980s
and ‘90s, traffickers often used go-fast boats that could travel up to 80 miles per
hour and outrun most Coast Guard boats. But those crafts left huge wakes and
anti-drug agents — using helicopters and their own racing boats — became more adept
at spotting them and, in some cases, shooting out their engines.
More recently, authorities have gotten better at picking up the radar
signature of semi-subs. And a recent drop-off in captures may indicate that the drug
traffickers are moving completely underwater. The number of impounded semi-subs
dropped from 17 in 2009 to just one so far this year.
And though no drug-laden submarines have been spotted in the ocean, they are
very likely out there.
If so, this technological leap presents vexing new challenges to law
enforcement because submarines are invisible to radar. Hunting them requires sonar
to identify their sounds or magnetic anomaly detectors, since conventional subs are
basically huge masses of steel which can cause deviations in the Earth’s magnetic
But the Pacific is vast and the two impounded drug subs are small, fiberglass
vessels made with very little steel. Even if a suspected drug sub is located,
practical and legal procedures for forcing it to the surface remain unclear.
For drug traffickers, the submarines also mean more headaches. For one thing,
they are more onerous and costly to build than semi-subs. The clandestine shipyard
in Ecuador had space for 50 workers. Taking into account materials, labor and
security fees, the submarine impounded in Ecuador may have cost upwards of $5
In addition, submarines are more difficult to operate than semi-subs. Any
boat captain can drive a semi-sub but navigating a submarine, especially bringing
one back up to the surface, requires a special skill set.
One retired smuggler, who made three drug delivery trips to Mexico at the
helm of semi-subs, said that clandestine sub pilots learn through computer
simulators or by trial and error. Either way, the trips can be hellish.
The smuggler, who spoke to Diálogo on condition of anonymity, described the
drug runs up to Mexico as tense and claustrophobic. There was no toilet, so the air
on board quickly filled with the vapors of excrement, cocaine and diesel fuel. They
rarely stopped for breathers because stationary vessels are easier to spot. On
board, an armed guard made sure there were no mutinies. Once back on the mainland,
the smuggler said he stunk so badly that he spent the next two weeks bathing himself
with a mix of Clorox and water.
“It’s like being a kamikaze,” he said. “I sometimes wonder how I survived.”
Still, he earned about $300,000 for each trip. Such eye-popping fees make it easy
for traffickers to recruit sub captains and crew members among the impoverished
fishermen of the Pacific coast.
However, conditions aboard the drug subs aren’t much better. Monroy, the Navy
officer who piloted the Colombian sub to Bahia Málaga, said the temperature inside
rose to 100 degrees. But he predicted that drug sub builders would make the
necessary adjustments, saying “we believe the smugglers will keep improving their
technology, allowing them to make all their trips underwater.”