Near the end of October, the Colombian National Navy seized a semi-submersible in the Colombian Pacific. The vessel, camouflaged in an estuary and capable of transporting two tons of cocaine, measured almost 14 meters long and 3 meters wide.
During a riverine search operation in the municipality of Tumaco, in the department of Nariño, troops from the Colombian Navy's Poseidon Counter Trafficking Task Force discovered a camp with four wooden structures capable of housing 20 people and two workshops containing materials to build semi-submersibles. Upon the discovery, troops expanded their search and found the semi-submersible.
“We were alerted to narcotrafficking activity in Majagual [an area of Tumaco], a very important drug exit corridor. We searched for any unusual activity, and we found signs of human presence—unusual for this jungle area—and a strong fiberglass odor,” Rear Admiral Carlos Serrano, commander of the Poseidon Counter Trafficking Task Force, told Diálogo. “We found a fully-built semi-submersible, lacking only installation of outboard motors.”
Narcotraffickers invest more than $1 million in the construction of a semi-submersible. With this bust, the Navy now counts 101 such vessels seized in the past 20 years in the fight against narcotrafficking. The first semi-submersible was found in 1997 on Providencia Island in the Colombian Caribbean.
The Colombian Pacific
Narcotraffickers continue to favor maritime means to transport drugs. The Colombian Pacific is a complex area with a shoreline of almost 1,500 kilometers that extends through four departments: Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño. It’s a jungle region with difficult access that allows narcotraffickers to move through the various rivers and estuaries that constitute the area’s major transit routes.
In addition, fishing is the predominant activity in the underdeveloped area. Traditional fishermen use the same materials required for the construction of the semi-submersibles. For this reason, according to Vice Admiral Luis Hernán Espejo, commander of the Colombian Navy's Pacific Fleet, semi-submersible interdiction operations involve institutional control of the territory, permanent patrols, local intelligence sources, and maritime surveillance photos.
According to authorities, semi-submersibles are generally built out of a fishing boat sealed with wood and fiberglass that can be submerged with the weight of drugs and the three or four crew members aboard. The construction takes between five and 12 months.
“Building a semi-submersible of this type is not complicated in and of itself,” Rear Adm. Serrano explained. “It doesn’t require much engineering knowledge or maritime experience because, although the device must meet flotation requirements, there is no need for elevation plans, ballast tanks, inertial navigation systems, or other naval engineering technologies.”
A matter of timing
The semi-submersibles usually depart Nariño and travel 1,500 nautical miles to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico, making refueling stops. At a speed of 6 to 10 knots, the vessel makes the journey in four to five days.
“The existence of illegal shipyards can be proven because they are usually located in estuaries, waiting for the right time to start the voyage to North America,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “To navigate this type of vessel in the Pacific ocean, it has to be high tide. Narcotraffickers plan the construction of these vessels with tidal behavior in mind to maintain a high level of secrecy.”
Throughout the years, authorities seized vessels measuring between five and 24 meters long with inboard motors and capable of transporting between 4 and 8 tons of drugs. “[The largest vessels] are boats with good autonomy that can make the trip non-stop, as they have greater fuel storage capacity,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “But they are more susceptible to detection, because they create greater surface distortion.”
According to the Pacific Naval Fleet, one kilo of cocaine is estimated at $1,700 in the Colombian Pacific and $33,000 on the international market. “Building a semi-submersible costs between $1 million and $1.5 million,” Rear Adm. Serrano said. “Still, they are disposable, since business revenues are sufficient to allow for new ones to be built and prevent monitoring from national and international authorities.”
In 2017, the Navy seized four semi-submersibles in the Colombian Pacific—two fewer than in 2016. “In 2017, we have seen fewer semi-submersibles than in other years, a consequence, we believe, of intelligence improvements,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “We try to seize these devices just as construction nears completion, so narcotraffickers’ efforts and investment are greater and it becomes a less profitable option each time,” he concluded.