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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.

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"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.

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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." •