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By Tobias Käufer
Off the east coast of Central America, the Honduran navy recently captured a submarine with some four tons of cocaine and five crew members on board.
The drug mob is now believed to have a whole fleet of submarines used to ship cocaine from producing countries like Colombia and Peru to distributors in Mexico and Africa, where it then can make its way onto the lucrative European and US markets.
Experts have expressed amazement at the technical savvy that lies behind the submarines’ design and construction. The boats are built expressly for the drug trade. A few weeks ago, Colombian authorities captured a brand-new submarine in a river in the middle of the jungle. The boat was 30 meters long, and although empty when seized, it had room for four people – and eight tons of cocaine.
"With a vessel like that, it would take you eight, maybe nine, days to get from Colombia to Mexico and you could stay submerged the whole way," says Colombian General Jairo Erazo.
The submarine found in the jungle belonged to the latest generation of narco-submarines, and unlike earlier-generation boats, it is completely submersible. A similar model was found by narcotics agents in Ecuador, another in 2008 in Mexico.
Jay Bergman, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Andean regional director, has called the advent of narco-submarines “a game-changer,” and new models are even more sophisticated.
"They’ve made a huge technological leap forward," says Colombian Admiral Hernando Wills. The propeller-driven boat found in the jungle, which apparently had yet to make its maiden voyage, was 10 meters longer than earlier models.
The submarines leave from the impoverished port city of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast of Colombia. There are enough out-of-work captains and sailors there who, for good money, are willing to risk making such a run.
Buenaventura is one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia. The region, inhabited mainly by Afro-Colombians, is not only where drug transportation is organized, it’s also where the cartels deal arms. Marxist FARC rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups are avid takers for the weapons, and also important players in the Colombian cocaine trade.
Drugs for weapons, round-trip
Criminal groups control every aspect of the drug trade in Colombia, from inland production to transportation. They can earn double if the drugs are shipped by submarine to Mexico because, on the return journey, the boats can be loaded with US-made weapons that gangs smuggle over the American border into Mexico.
Experts can only guess at the number of submarines currently shipping tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. But even just one delivery of eight tons puts hundreds of millions of euros into cartel coffers.
The black-market price for a kilo of cocaine can be as high as 70,000 euros. Every successful submarine run means sales of up to 500 million euros at street prices. When the cocaine gets to Mexico, local cartels there take over distribution.
The cartels use some of the huge profits to invest in new technology that enables them to run rings around narcotics squads. Before he was killed in 1993, Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar had cocaine flown to Mexico and the States in small planes, one of which can be seen at his hacienda near Medellín, now a local tourist attraction.
When police found the hidden runways used by the cocaine planes, the smugglers began throwing packets of cocaine out of the planes at predetermined locations. When the police got wise to that, the cartels chartered speedboats and used them until the coast guard caught on. And now they have submarines, whose presence cannot currently be picked up by radar systems or by patrolling law-enforcement ships and planes.
Experts estimate the cost of building a narco-submarine at around $2 million; their design requires not only highly specialized engineering skills, but expertise in such fields as fiberglass technology and ballast calculation.
The drug mafia‘s narco-submarines are prompting states to set ideological differences aside and join forces. Even the US and Bolivia, whose diplomatic relations are not good, are working together behind the scenes on a cooperation agreement, and Bolivian President Evo Morales has abandoned his campaign to have the coca leaf declared a part of humanity’s intangible heritage. That the record amount of cocaine seized so far -- 25.5 tons -- was seized in Bolivia last year should scare even him.
For over a year, Colombia and Venezuela have been working together to fight the drug trade, with some success: in recent months, 17 high-ranking drug bosses have been arrested.
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Read the original story in German here.