In early April, Colombian intelligence agencies received information about a plan to build a submarine to transport illegal drugs. It was known that the submarine would be manufactured somewhere in the department of Chocó, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, an area of operation for the guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN, per its Spanish acronym).
“This information was used to create our own intelligence system coordinating the capacities of all three military branches,” Brigadier General Mauricio Moreno Rodríguez, the commander of Joint Task Force Titán (FTCT, per its Spanish acronym), which is responsible for a large part of the department of Chocó, told Diálogo. “Resources provided by the National Police have aided in reinforcement.”
Working through the FTCT, the Colombian Navy’s Pacific Fleet, the Colombian Army, and the Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) designed a plan under Operation Barbudo (Bearded Man), which resulted in the seizure of the first electric submarine. Its discovery in late July was made possible by three months of tracking the materials needed by the criminals to manufacture the vessel. “By means of a stealth operation, the possible locations for its construction were ascertained,” Vice Admiral Luis Hernán Espejo Segura, the commander of Colombia’s Pacific Fleet, told Diálogo.
A reconnaissance mission flown by a FAC AC-47 Phantom aircraft located a coca-processing lab in an estuary of the Cucurrupi River in Chocó. Later, a Black Hawk helicopter from FAC’s 7th Combat Air Command escorted a Colombian Navy river assault patrol boat and several Army aircraft, which conducted the operation’s air assaults, FAC reported in a press release.
“That way we made a simultaneous incursion against both the [laboratory] as well as against the location where they had finished building the vessel,” Vice Adm. Espejo said. “We did it by night. We reached the submarine and waited until dawn broke to ensure the best results.”
Reaching the site was not easy. In addition to the extreme jungle conditions, there was harassment from guerrillas who tried to prevent the submarine’s removal. The objective, however, was achieved without any harm to the civilian population or the troops. To that end, it was very useful to have a bulletproof ship to repel the attacks and provide security to the service members.
The submarine was towed by an amphibious ship to the San Juan River. Later, it was transported to Naval Base 2 in Málaga Bay, where it was turned over to the Technical Investigation Corps.
Submarine and laboratory
The discovered submarine is capable of transporting four tons of drugs. It cost approximately $1.5 million and was made of steel plates used in shipbuilding. Its construction may have taken as much as six months.
It measures nine meters long, four-and-a-half meters wide, and has four stabilizing fins, a radar, a navigation chamber, echo sounding, and ballast and compression tanks. Its electric propulsion, powered by more than 100 batteries, allowed it to run two motors without producing gas or noise while navigating underwater, in order to evade detection by the authorities, the Colombian Navy reported in a press release.
At the laboratory, they found 34 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride ready for sale. The location also had sufficient equipment and supplies for industrial-scale drug manufacturing. “It had the capacity for producing around two tons of cocaine per week,” Vice Adm. Espejo said.
“Operation Barbudo was initiated in response to a request made by the governor of the department of Chocó to the Ministry of Defense in 2016, to wield more effective control over the San Juan River,” Brig. Gen. Moreno said. “It’s a partly navigable river, but not for deep-draft vessels.”
The ground troops trained for water combat during the first three months of 2017. After standardizing their logistics and the decision-making process, the plan was finalized.
“On April 1st, we launched the operation with the Pacific Fleet,” Brig. Gen. Moreno said. “Little by little, we occupied the San Juan River, starting from its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.”
Since then, the offensives have led to the capture of 125 people – members of ELN and other organized armed groups linked to drug trafficking – who commit crimes in the San Juan and Baudó river areas. They have also gained the voluntary surrender of 20 members of ELN, six of them minors, and have seized more than nine tons of cocaine hydrochloride and nearly two tons of marijuana. Among their other achievements are the seizure of 22 illegal weapons caches, the destruction of 17 camps used by organized armed groups, and the discovery of 559 kilograms of explosives, and 207 explosive devices, the Colombian Navy reported in a press release.
In a flood-prone and geologically unstable jungle region with more than 8,000 bodies of water, it is essential to have forces on the water to support the troops on the ground. “The effectiveness of this operation results from its joint nature, combining the capacities of the Marine Corps and the Navy to be on the river with ground maneuvers but within the same operational scheme, that is, fully coordinated,” Vice Adm. Espejo noted.
“The most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the Colombian Armed Forces’ joint operations should be based on a clearly understood, analyzed, and appropriate scheme,” Brig. Gen. Moreno concluded. “We set all of our egos aside.”