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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

"The crew members must be desperate to climb into one of those coffins," says Calderón, standing on the deck of the sub he caught last fall. Today, the sub's gray-green paint is chipping and the propeller is rusting as it sits in the sun at the Coast Guard docks here.

The hinges are stuck shut, but Calderón pries open the hatch by breaking the fiber-glass. "These are made to be disposable," he explains.

Once the hatch is open, the nauseating smell of diesel fuel wafts from the cramped cabin where usually four men make the two-week journey: a captain, a machinist, a navigator, and a cargo representative who makes sure the cocaine reaches the buyer on the other end.

For the duration of the journey they eat canned sausages and tuna and drink Gatorade or Red Bull energy drinks. To relieve themselves, they must climb out of the cabin and tie themselves to the sub so they don't fall into the sea.

For big-time traffickers, the subs are the most efficient way to get their product to market. A single sub that slips through the dragnets can carry as much as 10 tons of cocaine. At a price of about $25,000 per kilo, the subs may carry as much as $250 million worth of merchandise.

The use of subs started being explored by some of Colombia's top drug runners in the mid-1990s, says Montoya. The so-called "go-fast" boats that tried to outrun Coast Guard patrols were being caught. The go-fasts had replaced cocaine-laden planes when they became too easy to detect.

Early efforts to design a more effective mode of transport were aimed at building true submarines that could make the entire trip under water. "But the technology just wasn't available," Montoya says.

In 2000, police discovered a full-blown sub being built near the Colombian capital, Bogotá, apparently with Russian engineering. Today's semisubs are made with wooden hulls covered with fiberglass.

Exhaust pipes snake out from the engine room and down into the water to minimize the vessel's thermal signature.

The hulls are shaped to cause minimum wake and the boats ride low in the water. "That's what makes them so hard to detect," Calderón says.

Maj. Raúl Donado, of Colombia's Marines, concurs: "Once the semisubs are out at sea, it's 98 percent impossible to detect them."

That's why Colombian authorities rely so much on informants who are willing to give up their partners in exchange for cash rewards offered by the government.

One recent morning, a Coast Guard team accompanied by marines set out from Tumaco, up the Pacific coast with an informant who had told them about a clandestine shipyard hidden deep in the mangrove-covered waterways.

As the team's patrol boat entered the estuaries north of Tumaco, the informant, dressed in a black uniform, pulled a ski mask over his face. Day had broken and fishermen in wooden canoes stared quizzically as the boat eased through the countless curves of glassy water.

The boat slowed where the estuary split off in three directions. Peering through the hole in his mask, the informant pointed a slender finger tipped with sculpted nails common among men along the Pacific coast.

The gunner onboard strung a belt of bullets through the machine gun perched in the bow. Others on the team cocked pistols and were on alert for any suspicious movement as they approached the site indicated by the informant.

They tensed and hushed at the sound of an approaching motor. But the other vessel disappeared in the maze of jungle and water.

Finally the team came upon an abandoned shipyard with strips of blue fiberglass strewn around and the remnants of a small encampment.

Further exploration near the site yielded an abandoned cocaine crystallizing lab, complete with a loading dock that looked as though it had been torched before it was abandoned.

The informant assured the officers that he had been at the site just three days before. The Coast Guard officers and marines picked through the rubble and shrugged. "We got here too late," said one marine. "Maybe next time." •

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