Drug Traffic Beneath the Waves

Last year, 13 submersibles were seized on dry land or stopped at sea by Colombian or U.S. patrol boats -- more than in the previous 14 years combined.
Last year, 13 submersibles were seized on dry land or stopped at sea by Colombian or U.S. patrol boats -- more than in the previous 14 years combined. (Photos Courtesy Of Colombian Navy)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

BAHIA MALAGA, Colombia -- In the annals of the drug trade, traffickers have swallowed cocaine pellets, dissolved the powder into ceramics and flown the drug as far as Africa on flimsy planes -- anything to elude detection and get a lucrative product to market. Now, the cartels seem to be increasingly going beneath the waves, relying on submarines built in clandestine jungle shipyards to move tons of cocaine.

Last year, 13 of the vessels were seized on dry land or stopped at sea by Colombian or U.S. patrol boats -- more than in the previous 14 years combined, according to the Pacific fleet of the Colombian navy, which is responsible for interdiction efforts across 130,000 square miles.

Naval officials say they are concerned that many more submarines may have gotten past patrols, especially now that the newest models are faster and feature more seaworthy designs than the first such vessels that Colombian officials discovered in 1993.

"This enemy is supremely intelligent and has lots of money," explained Adm. Edgar Cely, the navy's chief of operations. "It shows that the narco-traffickers are betting on this method."

This sparsely inhabited sliver of Pacific coastline, where muddy rivers loop into the ocean, has long been a smugglers' paradise. Behind the jagged cliffs that jut into the ocean is a vast jungle, laced with mangrove-fringed coves and virtually thousands of miles of waterways.

The topography is near ideal for transporting the cocaine produced in clandestine laboratories in nearby Nariño state, where leftist guerrillas, the remnants of a paramilitary army and drug traffickers try to outmuscle one another for control.

In recent years, traffickers have used speedboats, called "go-fasts," that are custom-made from fiberglass and mounted with powerful motors that can take them to nearly 60 mph. But the speedboats create long wakes, easy to spot from the air.

The new vessels are tougher to pin down. While popularly called submarines, they are, strictly speaking, submersibles. They cannot dive like true submarines. Still, the hull of such a boat glides beneath the waves, with only the cockpit and exhaust tubes visible from above.

Some of the new vessels, with whimsically shaped fins, and ducts and pipes sticking out, bring to mind Captain Nemo's Nautilus from Jules Verne's imagination. Others are cigar-shaped, narrow and hydrodynamic, not unlike the World War I German U-boats that prowled the North Atlantic.

Built under the jungle canopy, in camps outfitted with sleeping quarters for workers, the Colombian versions can cost $2 million and take nearly a year to build, said Capt. Gustavo Angel, commander of the 18-vessel flotilla that operates out of the naval base here in Bahia Malaga, Colombia's most important on the Pacific.

"What's most striking is the logistical capacity of these criminals to take all this material into the heart of the jungle, including heavy equipment like propulsion gear and generators," said Angel, who has spent years fighting drug traffickers.

For traffickers, the payoff -- reaching Central America, the first stage in a circuitous route to the United States -- is well worth the trouble. A 10-ton load can fetch nearly $200 million wholesale in the United States.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company