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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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In response, last fall the U.S. Congress passed the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008, 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 under the new statute. Colombia has responded with a similar law that awaits final approval.

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Accused Builder

Last August, Colombian authorities arrested Gustavo Adolfo de Jesús García, alias "The Engineer," the alleged mastermind of a sub-building syndicate, and Lope Antonio López, known as "El Gringo," accused of brokering deals with Mexican cartels eager to move tons of cocaine to Mexico via submersibles.

García and López, authorities said, were focused on the manufacturing side of the business, building bigger, stealthier, sleeker vessels. Colombian police say the men were also offering something new -- drone subs operated by remote control.

In a recent telephone interview with The Washington Post, López said from a prison in Colombia that he had nothing to do with the submarine network. But he shed light on how the boat-building enterprise might work.

López said that in 2007 he was selling fishing boats to Venezuela's government. As part of the job, he headed to Panama City to purchase diesel engines. While there, a friend suggested that he have lunch with a man with Mexican clients. At the lunch, the man asked López to build semi-submersibles. "They look for someone who could do the fiberglass construction," López said.

López insisted he walked out of the meeting when he realized it was about drug trafficking. He was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges in May.

Booth reported from Mexico and Florida. Forero reported from Colombia.


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