By Carol Rosenberg, McClatchy Newspapers –
MIAMI — When reports first surfaced in the 1990s of boat builders making submarines for cocaine smugglers in the jungles of Colombia, U.S. law enforcement regarded it as a comic curiosity. Today, with the disclosure that the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted its 30th semi-submersible in less than six years, it’s now a troubling tactic.
The Coast Guard said in a news release Wednesday that two of its cutters, the Decisive and Pea Island, chased down a sub on March 30 in the Western Caribbean. It credited collaboration with the Honduran Navy.
The Coast Guard also released an eerie photo — the bow of the sub, painted with shark’s teeth — disappearing beneath the surface.
The suspected smugglers on board scuttled the cramped craft before they were taken into custody, sending their suspicious load into “thousands of feet of water” about 150 nautical miles north of Honduras, according to an official close to the operation. By one estimate, it was carrying several tons of drugs. Intelligence agencies believe these kind of vessels are bound for Central America.
Federal authorities kept the interdiction secret until the four smuggling suspects captured at the time were brought ashore to face charges at the U.S. District Court in Miami. Neither their identities nor nationalities were immediately released.
Until this latest episode, the Coast Guard had stopped or seen sunk a total of 29 of the low-tech, stealthy vessels — 25 in the eastern Pacific and four in the Caribbean, none close to Florida’s shores. In the first four Caribbean cases, the crews scuttled their craft in shallow enough water that U.S. law enforcement divers recovered packages of cocaine estimated to value $699 million.
In one instance, the Coast Guard turned to an elite FBI underwater evidence recovery team out of Quantico, Va., to bring up the sealed bricks of cocaine to make sure that no criminals could retrieve the haul.
“The first one we found was on the Pacific Coast,” recalled retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was in charge of the Pentagon’s U.S. Southern Command from 1994 to 1996 and went on to become the U.S. drug czar from 1996 to 2001. “It was Colombian, they had two Russian engineers, probably just unemployed sub guys helping to design the thing — and I thought it was the silliest thing I ever heard of in my life.”
They were so crude — and cramped inside — that it evoked memories of the Monitor and the Merrimack in the Civil War. “The freeboard was, we estimated, 3 feet. You’d have to hold a gun to a guy’s head to get him in there.”
More than a decade ago, he said in a recent interview, “I thought it was ridiculous.”
Now, “of course what happened is it turned into another way to do multi-load tons with a fairly low chance of being detected” because most U.S. surveillance systems are radar driven. And “the submersible has clearly turned into a preferred delivery system.”
The subs’ origins are in the cat-and-mouse tactics drug smugglers have adopted for years.
In the 1990s, as the Coast Guard was cracking down on speedboat smuggling, U.S. officials began to gather intelligence that the drug lords were building subs in the jungles of Colombia to launch an underwater drug-smuggling flotilla.
But U.S. law enforcement only confirmed the phenomenon in November 2006 when the Coast Guard intercepted “Bigfoot,” considered a primitive precursor.
U.S. officials calculate that, since then, they interdicted some 200 metric tons of cocaine valued at perhaps $5.3 billion.
The vessels are typically 100 feet long, with four to five crewmembers on board and can carry up to 10 metric tons. They don’t go fast, perhaps 6 knots, but because most of the fiberglass vessel is below the waterline and the remainder is mostly obscured by ocean waves it is very difficult to see these craft on radar. Sometimes there is a faux superstructure on top to make it appear to be a pleasure boat.
They can cover vast territory, 3,000 to 6,500 miles, by Coast Guard reckoning.
U.S. intelligence experts believe that Colombian boat makers craft them covertly in makeshift workshops beneath the jungle canopies — turf that the drug lords control — making it hard to detect by aerial surveillance.
They’re cheap. U.S. intelligence estimates they are built for no more than $1 million to move $150 million to $180 million in cocaine per load, then sunk by crews once their shipment is offloaded rather than risk detection and another claustrophobic ride back to Colombia. (The Coast Guard calls these vessels self-propelled semi-submersibles because earlier smugglers attempted to tow loads in submerged containers tethered by tow lines to their boats.)