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Semi-Submarines, Stealthily Plying Pacific, Arrive as a Way to Smuggle Cocaine

This 60-foot semi-submersible at the Coast Guard base in Key West, Fla., was captured by a U.S. drug interdiction task force. It carried 6.4 tons of cocaine.
This 60-foot semi-submersible at the Coast Guard base in Key West, Fla., was captured by a U.S. drug interdiction task force. It carried 6.4 tons of cocaine. (By William Booth -- The Washington Post)
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By William Booth and Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 6, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- When anti-narcotics agents first heard that drug cartels were building an armada of submarines to transport cocaine, they thought it was a joke.

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Now U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles.

An experimental oddity just two years ago, these strange semi-submarines are the cutting edge of drug trafficking today. They ferry hundreds of tons of cocaine for powerful Mexican cartels that are taking over the Pacific Ocean route for most northbound shipments, according to the Colombian navy.

The sub-builders are even trying to develop a remote-controlled model, officials say.

"That means no crew. That means just cocaine, or whatever, inside the boat," said Michael Braun, a former chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The subs are powered by ordinary diesel engines and built of simple fiberglass in clandestine shipyards in the Colombian jungle. U.S. officials expect 70 or more to be launched this year with a potential cargo capacity of 380 tons of cocaine, worth billions of dollars in the United States.

"This is definitely the next generation of smuggling conveyance," said Joseph Ruddy, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa who prosecutes narco-mariners.

The submersibles are equipped with technologies that make them difficult to intercept, even though U.S. 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 DEA agent said.

U.S. 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.

U.S. officials fear that the rogue vessels could be used by terrorists intent on reaching the United States with deadly cargos.

Daytime Drift

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.

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