Cocaine armada: most narcotic submarines slip through US net
WHEN narcotics agents first heard that drug cartels were building an armada of submarines to transport cocaine they thought it was a joke.
Now US law enforcement officials say more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the US from Colombia travels in submersibles. An experimental oddity two years ago, the strange semi-submarines are now the cutting edge of drug trafficking.
The subs are powered by ordinary diesel engines and built of simple fibreglass in clandestine shipyards in the Colombian jungle. US officials expect 70 or more to be launched this year with a potential cargo of 380 tonnes of cocaine, worth billions of dollars.
The submersibles boast technologies that make them difficult to intercept, even though US forces use state-of-the-art submarine warfare strategies against them. Authorities say most slip through their net. “You try finding a floating log in the middle of the Pacific,” one US drug agent said.
US officials and their Colombian counterparts have detected evidence of more than 115 submersible voyages since 2006. They have apprehended the crews of more than 22 submersibles at sea since 2007.
Six crews have been arrested this year. The Colombian Navy has intercepted or discovered 33 subs since 1993.
The vessels do not fully submerge but skim the sea surface. They move quickly at night, then drift like sleeping whales during the day. Under cover of darkness, they slither out of Colombia’s shallow rivers and 10 days later rendezvous offshore along the Central American coast, usually near Guatemala, where cocaine is offloaded and the subs are sunk.
“These vessels are intelligently designed,” said Rear Admiral Joseph Nimmich of the US Coast Guard. “They are not very comfortable, but they are now very seaworthy.”
The latest submersibles can travel 4800 kilometres without refuelling. Colombian officials say some former military personnel may be helping to design, construct and direct the vessels. Admiral Guillermo Barrera of the Colombian Navy says the subs usually carry four to 10 tonnes of cocaine.
They typically have a crew of four, including a captain, an engineer and a seaman who helps steer and unload the cocaine. The fourth crew member usually represents the owner. With cargoes worth $US100 million ($125 million) or more, “you want to know where they’re headed”, Admiral Barrera said.
Crews are well compensated, splitting as much as $US500,000. The work is dangerous; the subs cross stormy sea lanes without lights, with a shifting ballast of fuel and drugs. The cabins are hot and cramped, with a bucket for a latrine and a floor to sleep on.
Last year the US Congress passed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act, which makes it a crime to ply international waters in stateless vessels with the intent of evading detection. The maximum sentence is 15 years. So far three crews have either entered pleas or been found guilty.