Colombia Intercepts Manned Semi-Submersibles

With the latest interceptions, Colombia totals 111 semi-submersibles seized since 1993.
Myriam Ortega/Diálogo | 21 September 2018

Transnational Threats

In early August 2018, the Colombian Navy intercepted two semi-submersibles with mechanical failure and incoming water on the Pacific coast of Colombia. (Photo: Colombian Navy)

In the first half of August 2018, the Colombian Navy located and intercepted two manned semi-submersibles through maritime interdiction operations on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Authorities found more than 2 tons of drugs worth $66 million in the international market.

Units of the Colombian Navy’s Pacific Naval Force intercepted the first semi-submersible on August 1st. Officers found 38 packages with 748 kilograms of cocaine and four Colombian crew members aboard a vessel near Gorgona Island, 35 kilometers off the coast of Cauca department.

Thanks to the Navy’s intelligence and the support of a Cessna Citation SR-560 Tracker reconnaissance aircraft of the Colombian Air Force, a rapid reaction unit of the Pacific Naval Force reached the location. According to the Navy, the semi-submersible was adrift due to mechanical failure that occurred during its voyage toward Central America.

“The semi-submersible had damaged engines, so they couldn’t maintain inertia,” Colombian Navy Rear Admiral Orlando Grisales, commander of the Pacific Naval Force’s Anti-Drug Trafficking Task Force Poseidon, told Diálogo. “There was incoming water in the section where the controls are located. Little by little the hold flooded, gained weight, and finally sunk.”

Interdiction at sea

Two weeks later, units of the Pacific Naval Force intercepted a semi-submersible following maritime surveillance and control operations on high seas, more than 500 km west off the coast of Valle del Cauca department. Authorities arrested three Colombian crew members and seized 1,722 kg of cocaine hydrochloride.

“On August 15th, we received intelligence of a potential vessel navigating near Malpelo Island,” said Colombian Navy Lieutenant Commander Carlos Andrés Torres Caraballo, operations supervisor for the Pacific Naval Force. “We deployed the ship [patrol ship ARC 7 de Agosto] to the general area of Malpelo, so as to use our cutting-edge technology equipment.”

Naval units found and intercepted the semi-submersible thanks to support from a long-range radar and a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle that overflew the area. Upon inspecting the 12-meter long by 3-meter wide artisanal craft, authorities established the vessel had a mechanical engine failure and was taking in water. “They proceeded to open the vessel, remove the three subjects, and lead them to the ship so they could get first aid from the nurse on board,” Lt. Cmdr. Torres said.

On August 1st, the Colombian Navy intercepted a semi-submersible with four crew members and more than 700 kilograms of cocaine on board. (Photo: Colombian Navy)

Sixty packages containing the drug were found aboard the vessel. When the officers tried to take the semi-submersible to the Port of Buenaventura in Valle del Cauca department, it sank.

In both operations, authorities delivered the drugs to the Colombian National Police’s Couternarcotics Directorate. The five arrestees will be charged with drug trafficking and possession, as well as with building and using a semi-submersible. 

Serious blow to narcotrafficking

So far in 2018, the Navy seized 14 semi-submersible vessels on the Pacific coast of Colombia, for a total of 111 semi-submersibles seized in more than 20 years. In 1993, the first artifact was found in Providencia Island, located in the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The seizures represent a serious blow to coffers of narcotrafficking organizations—more than $1 million goes into building a semi-submersible.

In 2018, the Pacific Naval Force seized more than 59 tons of cocaine valued at more than $1 billion. Authorities’ operations also weakened logistics structures of transnational criminal organizations through the capture of 115 people devoted to drug trafficking.  

According to Rear Adm. Grisales, the seizure of drugs transported by sea affects the finances of narcotrafficking groups, depending on where the drug is found. “A kilo of cocaine hydrochloride in the coastline might be worth $5,000. As the drug leaves the coast and gets closer to the port of destination, its price goes up,” he said. “Its value in Central America can reach $15,000 per kilogram, and $33,000 in the international market.”

Narco-submarines have evolved since their creation. The basic vessels without engines that fishing boats pulled in the 1990s transformed into self-propelled and aerodynamic vessels, with the capacity to travel long distances. Although the number of seizures for 2018 seems promising compared to the four of 2017, the fight against drug smuggling by sea must continue, Rear Adm. Grisales said.

“Drug traffickers don’t stay still. A number of occurrences took place around this trend that tries to create less visible means on high seas,” the officer concluded. “They made a lot of tests, not only here in Colombia, but worldwide.”

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