Colombia Curbs Maritime Narcotrafficking

The Colombian Navy seized semisubmersibles from a criminal ring.
Myriam Ortega/Diálogo | 11 April 2019

Transnational Threats

In late January, the Colombian Navy recovered a semisubmersible that its crew had sunk in the Colombian Pacific to destroy evidence and avoid prosecution. (Photo: Colombian Navy)

The Colombian Navy curbed the activities of a transnational criminal ring in Cauca department, in the Colombian Pacific coast, between January and February 2019. Units of the Navy’s Pacific Naval Force (FNP, in Spanish) led several joint operations that resulted in the seizure of three semisubmersibles and more than 1 ton of cocaine, and the arrest of three criminals.

FNP conducted the operations with the support of the Colombian Air Force’s (FAC, in Spanish) 7th Combat Air Command (CACOM-7), and the Attorney General’s Special Office against Drug Trafficking and Technical Investigation Corps. According to the Navy, the vehicles, drugs, and the three individuals belonged to the Residual Organized Armed Group (GAOR, in Spanish) Front 29 Steven González, which operates in the region.

Pursuit at sea

On January 28, authorities carried out a pursuit at sea, as a result of intelligence work from the Navy and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish). The former guerillas sought for extradition by the United States collaborated with authorities in exchange for benefits such as reduced sentences, the Navy indicated in a press release.

“Naval intelligence had information that helped detect the possible departure of a semisubmersible or vessel that potentially transported an unknown amount of an illegal substance,” Navy Commander Julio César Sánchez Suárez, chief of the Pacific Coast Guard Station, an FNP unit, told Diálogo.

FAC pilots supported the operation with flights over the area with a Citation SR-560 intelligence aircraft, and a Cessna 208 Caravan surveillance platform. “What we do is act as a warning to guide Navy vessels and make maritime interdictions more efficient,” FAC Captain Rodrigo Núñez, CACOM-7 Air Defense Squadron commander, told Diálogo.

With the information provided, FNP units located the semisubmersible in Pacific waters near Timbiquí municipality, Cauca department. The crew, one Colombian and two Ecuadorean nationals, attempted to get rid of the evidence upon seeing the Colombian Navy vessels. 

“When the crew realized we were going to capture them, they opened a few bottom valves, so that water could get in quickly and sink the semisubmersible,” said Cmdr. Sánchez. “We marked the approximate position where the vessel sank, and with the help of another Navy ship we verified and identified the exact location of the semisubmersible.”

Colombian Navy divers took part in a 10-day operation to recover the semisubmersible. (Photo: Colombian Navy)

Rescue operation

FNP units responded quickly to rescue the three criminals and recover the semisubmersible, which was 30 meters deep. After 10 days of work, and with the help of an amphibious landing ship, as well as diving and logistics units, the Navy salvaged the 20-meter-long and 2-meter-wide vessel and seized 1,535 kilograms of cocaine that the crew attempted to smuggle to Central America.

“Colombian Navy divers, who are highly professional, started a very tricky and dangerous maneuver,” said Colombian Navy Vice Admiral José Martínez Olmos, FNP commander. “They tried several times to refloat that semisubmersible; it was very complicated, but with a well-conducted procedure we were able to extract both fuel and cocaine.”

Navy personnel brought the detainees, drugs, and semisubmersible before authorities in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department, for prosecution. The criminals could receive a six-to-12-year sentence for using, constructing, and owning a semisubmersible, and eight to 14 years for transporting the drug, said the Navy.

Other semisubmersibles

In early February, the Navy seized two other semisubmersibles in two shipyards hidden in the rural jungle area of López de Micay municipality, Cauca department. Joint intelligence work enabled the Navy and FAC to locate the shipyards and confirm the vessels’ presence.

“We scanned through the undergrowth [in the jungle] with an infrared camera,” said Capt. Núñez. “We used heat marks to follow clues until we found the shipyard.”

The seized semisubmersibles were 15 meters long and could transport up to 2.5 tons of cocaine each, the Navy said. The seizure of three semisubmersibles and 1.5 tons of cocaine allowed the Navy to deal a harsh blow to the finances of GAOR Front 29 Steven González.

“So far this year [2019], we seized six semisubmersibles and about 10 tons of cocaine and marijuana,” Vice Adm. Martínez concluded. “It’s a huge amount that shows the operational effort we carry out in our fight against the entire narcotrafficking chain of operation.”

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