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In Colombia, drug war targets 'narcosubs'

Traffickers have long run semi-submersibles up the Pacific coast to Mexico. New laws aim to crack down on the vessels' manufacture.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / June 23, 2009

An aerial view of a semi-submarine, which, according to Colombian authorities, is used to transport illicit drugs, is seen at the Atrato River in Turbo province, near Medellin, June 1. A total of nine semi-submarines have been confiscated in 2009, preventing drug smugglers from exporting about 30 tons of cocaine.

John Vizcaino /REUTERS


Tumaco, Colombia

Lt. Oscar Calderón had been at sea with his men for four days, waiting. They watched the waves as they patrolled Colombia's Pacific coastline. On the fourth night, a US surveillance plane picked up a signal. The cocaine submarine it had detected was on the move.

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Lieutenant Calderón peered into the moonless night to try to pinpoint the vessel, which rides just below the sea's surface.

Every so often the surveillance team would radio in the latest position of the sub, but the men at sea saw nothing.

Colombian drug traffickers' latest transport vehicle of choice, known as narcosubs or semisubmersibles, are made to avoid detection. Once loaded with anywhere from four to 10 tons of cocaine, only about one foot of the homemade vessels rises above water as they make the 15-day, 1,500-mile journey from Colombia's southern Pacific coast to the shores of Mexico.

"It could have been 50 meters in front of me, and even with night-vision goggles and everything, I saw nothing," Calderón remembers. But the surveillance team led Calderón and his men into a small jungle-covered estuary south of this coastal Pacific city, and what they found there made the night-long hunt worth the wait.

Deep within the maze of waterways, Calderón and his men found the semisub they had been chasing. Beside it lay 1.6 tons of cocaine in perfectly packed water-tight bricks, ready to make the trip north. Several days later, they found a clandestine shipyard where two other subs were under construction.

The find last fall should have been among the high points of Calderón's career in Colombia's Coast Guard. But Calderón sighs. "We make this huge effort to seize four, but with one that gets through, the drug traffickers make up their losses," he says. "That's what makes our job so frustrating."

Forty-two semisubs have been seized since 1993 – with three nabbed in the first week of June alone. But laws have not yet caught up with the drug traffickers.

IT IS STILL LEGAL in Colombia to build, transport, or possess unregistered semisubmersible vessels. So, if no drugs are found in a seizure on land or at sea, there is no crime. But a bill that gives authorities the tools to prosecute anyone linked to the subs is soon to become law. Prison sentences for those convicted range from six to 14 years.

The bill follows a new law passed last fall in the United States that outlaws unregistered subs in international waters, regardless of whether they can be shown to have been carrying drugs. Typically, crews that are detected by naval authorities open an emergency valve built into the subs to scuttle the vessels and their cargo. With the evidence of cocaine at the bottom of the sea, officials had been obliged by international law to treat the crew as castaways.

The crew of one sub interdicted in May by the US Coast Guard will be the second to be tried under the new law, according to US Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Brian Robinson.

Colombian and US authorities hope the threat of prison will help to deter crews from agreeing to embark on the grueling journey to transport the drugs. But Miguel Angel Montoya, a former drug trafficker who says he met more than a dozen crews before they set off on their journeys, says the new law will probably have little effect.

"I don't think anything will change, because the organizations take advantage of the poverty in Colombia to lure crew members to make the trip for $10,000 or $20,000," says Mr. Montoya, a Mexican physician who was involved with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels until 2004. Montoya says the four- or five-man crews he met in the secret jungle shipyards went through a ritual the night before they set off. "They would pray to the Divine Child and to the Virgin. Then, they would be given a hearty meal. It was like they were on death row," he says, adding that it was a well-known secret that many crews never returned.