The Evolution of Colombia's Narco-Submarines

BUENAVENTURA, COLOMBIA: Captain Mario Rodríguez, Commander of the Colombian Coast Guard on the Pacific Ocean, is a man who is trying to push back a rising tide. For over 20 years he has worked to counter the steady advancement of the transportation technologies employed by Colombian traffickers to smuggle cocaine into Mexico and the United States. But this has been mostly a game of catch-up.

"In the 1980s we were tracking and chasing cigarette boats that traveled 20 knots per hour, and soon go-fast boats with 3, 4, or even 5 engines that could go 40 to 50 knots," said Captain Rodríguez. When the Colombian Navy acquired the U.S. made Midnight Express interceptors to keep up with those speeds, the traffickers slowed down and went underwater. "The first semi-submersibles we came across in the 1990s were very rudimentary," said Rodríguez. "They didn't have a motor and were attached with a cable to fishing boats, which dragged them along to their destinations." Since then semi-submersibles have become much more sophisticated.

While they still cannot dive, the new semi-submersibles are self-propelled and increasingly streamlined, with few visible appendages. They are also capable of traveling longer distances. To go to Mexico, the shorter routes, and also the most exposed to international interdiction efforts, follow the coastline of Central America and take about six days to navigate. However, some semi-submersibles travel as far as to pass south of the Galápagos Islands to get out of the reach of the Colombian Navy, a route that can take two weeks or longer.

According to the most recent estimates of the Colombian Navy, 55% of Colombia's total cocaine exports leave the country by sea from the Pacific coast--mostly aboard semi-submersibles, some of which can carry up to 14 tons of cocaine.

Made of fiberglass and wood, with single or twin diesel engines, semi-submersibles can cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 to construct. The building materials account for only a fifth of the price tag. "What makes the semi-subs expensive is the cost of silence," said Rodríguez. "The traffickers need to keep 10 or 12 workers for 30 to 45 days in a secret location, and the discretion of these workers does not come cheap."

The returns, though, are enormous. A kilogram of cocaine is worth $1,800 in Colombia but $8,000 in Mexico and upwards of $20,000 in the United States. Although some semi-submersibles are known to have entered U.S. coastal waters, the organizations that operate them generally prefer to smuggle their cargo to destinations along Mexico's Pacific coast, where the Mexican cartels take over the business.

Colombia no longer has its own cartels, as it did in the days of Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers. What it does have now is a series of relatively small criminal organizations that have divided among themselves the different stages of the drug trade: some harvest the coca plants; others run the labs that process the coca leaves into cocaine; and still others transport the drug.

Currently there are three distinct organizations that build semi-submersibles in the jungles along Colombia's Pacific coastline. Two are based in and around the Sanquianga National Park, in the Department of Nariño, while the other one operates in the Department of Chocó. These are some of the poorest and most remote regions of the country.

Searching for the sites where these organizations assemble the semi-submersibles is one of the Colombian Navy's most challenging tasks. "We sail up these muddy, narrow rivers and there is dense vegetation all around us," said a 23-year-old Navy officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press. "Many of the people who live up there are working for the traffickers. As soon as we pass, someone picks up a cell phone and lets the people upstream know that we are coming." The risk of ambushes is high.

Once they reach the high seas, semi-submersibles are extremely difficult to detect. They do not leave a visible wake like go-fast boats, nor do they show up on most radars. Infrared systems can spot their heat signature, but the newest semi-submersibles have insulated motors that produce so little heat that surveillance planes often cannot spot them unless they are directly above them.

Since signing a maritime interdiction agreement in 1997, the Unites States and Colombia have maintained a close alliance to counter international drug trafficking. A new cooperation deal, which allows up to 600 U.S. troops and 800 U.S. contractors on Colombian military bases, is now set to improve the joint efforts to detect and seize semi-submersibles.

The deal has precipitated a diplomatic crisis in Latin America, with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez accusing "los yanquis" of wanting to overthrow his government, and even Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva expressing concerns about the geopolitical aims of the United States in the subcontinent.

The Colombian government, though, considers the new agreement to be crucial to its efforts to counter organized crime and the leftist rebels of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). "We are not talking about a political game, we are talking about a threat that has spilled blood in Colombian society," said President Álvaro Uribe defending the plan. Captain Rodríguez agrees: "This is an adjustment to a long established collaboration. The Americans can provide information that can help us with the detection and tracking stages of our work."

How will the traffickers respond to the stepped up interdiction efforts by the United States and Colombia? Captain Rodríguez is certain that they will seek to improve their underwater capabilities. "They will try to develop fully submersible vessels. In fact, we cannot exclude the possibility that they might have already acquired that technology."