The Dawn of the Drug Submarine

By Dialogo
July 20, 2011


In the remote Amazonian jungles, hidden under the canopy of rainforests, lies the latest technological advancement for the drug smugglers – the “narco submarine.” For years, Colombian drug traffickers have conceived of new ways to smuggle shipments of cocaine to Mexico and the United States from using drug “mules”, to go-fast boats, to even hijacking passenger jets.

In the 1990’s, traffickers began experimenting with primitive semi-submersibles which were nothing more than just cigarette boats that were encased in wood and fiberglass and were limited in range and capacity. However, as drug trafficking organizations advanced their techniques, newer generations of the submersibles were built with the capacity to carry larger loads and the ability to travel much further than before.

These new submersibles ranged from 40 to 80 feet in length, with the capacity to hold up to 4 people and 12 metric tons of cocaine. They had a tower in the middle so the crew could look out over the splashing waves and steer. Still built with wood and fiberglass, these subs emit a low radar signature causing it to be very hard to be detected, not to mention the fact that they’re also painted the color of the ocean. The price tags for the submersibles cost about $500,000 and are usually made within 90 days.

According to dozens of semi submersible crewmembers who have been arrested by U.S. and Colombian authorities in the past several years, engineers with Naval backgrounds either from Colombia or outside the country are believed to be recruited by drug traffickers and are being paid top dollar to design these vessels.

After they’re built, the subs are normally escorted by go-fast boats downriver from the jungle and released at sea. A sub’s route normally takes it several miles off the coast of Mexico or Central America where they are met by go-fast boats, which then take the cocaine to shore. Once their trips are complete, the subs are scuttled and abandoned — the cheapest and least conspicuous way to dispose of them. In the event that subs are spotted, crews also dispose of the sub.

“When they think they might be caught, the crews tend to scuttle them,” said Jose Ruiz, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami. “They get out of them, sink them, and the drugs go to the bottom of the ocean so they can’t be recovered for evidence.” Semi-submersibles are hard to spot from patrol ships, but are easy to detect from the air.

Colombian authorities alone have seized over 60 semi submersibles since 1993according to Colombian Naval Public Affairs. Despite the seizures over the years however, drug traffickers have remained undeterred as rumors began to surface that the cartels had finally been able to build a fully submersible ship.

“This enemy is supremely intelligent and has lots of money. It shows that the narco-traffickers are betting on this method,” said Admiral Edgar Cely, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces. The rumors of a fully submersible vessel were in fact true when in July of 2010, Ecuadorian armed forces, with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, captured a 100-foot diesel-powered “Narco submarine” along a river tributary to the Pacific south of the Colombian border in Ecuador. The sophisticated vessel, with the ability to transporting multi-ton quantities of cocaine, also had a conning tower (which allows for visibility above water while the rest of the ship remains fully submerged underwater), periscope, and air conditioning system. As a result of DEA intelligence, Ecuadorian authorities were able to seize the vessel before it was able to make its maiden voyage.

Then seven months later, in February of 2011, Colombian military seized a 100-foot fully submersible vessel, in a jungle in Timbiqui, near Colombia’s southwestern Pacific coast with three tons of cocaine nearby, ready to be loaded into a storage compartment. Both these vessels have the ability to dive 30 feet below the ocean’s surface and are estimated to cost between $2 to $5 million and take about a year to build.

Jay Bergman, the DEA’s Andean Regional Director stationed in Bogota, believes that the capturing of these two vessels signifies a concerning trend and believes that more already exist. “The advent of the narco-submarine presents new detection challenges for maritime interdiction forces. The submarine’s nautical range, payload capacity and quantum leap in stealth have raised the stakes for the counter-drug forces and the national security community alike.”



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