Pubdate: Sun, 03 Dec 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Kirk Semple


Way up in the Andes and 440 miles from the sea, suspected drug runners in 
Colombia built a most unlikely vessel to transport their wares.

The neighbors didn't see a thing.

Last July, eavesdroppers for the Colombian national police intercepted a 
series of radio conversations that Col. Jaime Enrique Bonilla describes as 
"very strange." "They were saying things like, 'Bring the flour for the 
party tonight,' and 'The foreigners are ready,"' recalls Bonilla, who 
oversees the division of the police force that operates in the mountainous 
central state of Cundinamarca, which includes Bogota. "They didn't use 
names. Lots of farmers communicate with one another using radios, but they 
always use names.

When people don't use names, that concerns us." Fourteen leftist rebel 
groups are based in Cundinamarca, and investigators suspected they were 
overhearing coded conversations about arms trafficking, cocaine processing 
or preparations to attack a village.

Technicians determined that the signals were coming from a region west of 
Bogota, high in the Andes, where most of the country's roses, carnations 
and pompons are grown.

They homed in on a village called Cartagenita, a poor farming community of 
brick-block houses dominated by a factory that produces flour to make arepas.

Undercover cops went to work in the area, and after several weeks they 
zeroed in on an unmarked warehouse behind a high wall fronting the region's 
main road, a well-traveled corridor that connects Bogota and Medellin. The 
warehouse, topped by an aluminum roof, abuts a busy Texaco gas station and 
a three-story house.

"They asked what it was for and I told them: metal ornamentation," recalls 
Pablo Neira, whose family owns the warehouse as well as the adjacent gas 
station and house.

Neira accompanied the police as they first inspected the building. "We 
knocked," he says. "No one was there.

So we looked through a hole in the door and saw a big metal tank."

The investigators thought they had located the headquarters of a 
stolen-gasoline ring, a major coup. They began a stakeout of the place.

But it appears they'd already blown their cover.

After several days, no one returned, so the team closed in. What was on the 
other side of the door would turn out to be much stranger than they ever 

The interior of the warehouse was about the size of a tennis court and 
contained three enormous steel cylinders.

Two were sealed at one end, the other was open. Each was 10 1/2 feet in 
diameter and between 24 feet and 27 feet in length, sprayed with maroon paint.

In several places on their smooth surfaces were mathematical computations 
and technical glyphs scratched in chalk and marker.

One diagram depicted a Dr. Seuss-like array of tubing topped with a 
cartoonish puff of smoke.

The cylinders rested on a carriage system atop wheels and railroad ties, 
apparently for easy shifting.

The room was cluttered with tools, mostly conventional stuff: hammers, 
screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, drills, sanding devices, protractors, 
paintbrushes. More sophisticated pieces of technology included a welding 
unit, a soldering machine, a Taiwanese drill press and a compressor. Video 
cameras monitored activity inside the warehouse and around its perimeter.

Several nudie posters adorned one section of a wall and, according to 
police, 8 to 10 mattresses had been left behind along with a cache of 
canned food. In a corner was a weight-lifting apparatus draped in plastic 
sheeting and, in an adjoining bungalow with direct access to the warehouse, 
police found some free weights, an abdominal exercise machine and a Rottweiler.

The police also found several pieces of paper with phrases in Spanish and 
Russian. "They were everyday phrases," Colonel Bonilla says. "How are you?' 
'Hello.' 'Good-bye.' 'What can I offer you?"' Other documents revealed the 
names of two Russians. The property owner produced a lease, which, 
according to investigators, was signed in April 1999 by an American citizen.

At first, the police weren't sure what they were looking at. "It was 
something very odd," Bonilla says. "It wasn't a normal gas tank." But they 
had a theory, one that was hard to believe, so they called in an official 
from the Colombian Navy's headquarters in Bogota.

Capt. Ismael Idrobo of the Colombian Navy knew what they had found: a 
half-built 78-foot submarine wedged in a warehouse, a mile and a half above 
sea level and a 440-mile drive from the nearest ocean port. "The guy who 
designed it knew exactly what he was doing," he says. "It took imagination 
and a lot of experience."

Colombian law-enforcement officials were practically giddy about their 
discovery. Within a few hours of the raid, the national police announced 
that they had uncovered "a submarine factory in the service of 
narcotrafficking," and that "it is believed a sector of the Russian mafia 
is behind this sophisticated system." The national police said that an 
investigation was under way to identify "the international narcotrafficking 
network, author of this project."

Their enthusiasm was understandable. Colombian cops have grown accustomed 
to being on the losing side of the drug war. About 90 percent of the 
world's cocaine and an increasing percentage of its heroin now come from 
inside the country's borders, and the task of stemming that flow has become 
ever more difficult. Smuggling techniques have evolved in frighteningly 
sophisticated ways; cocaine and heroin are concealed in the intestinal 
tracts of animals, children and the elderly, in musical instruments, food 
(real and fake), cement posts, prosthetics, tar, lumber, sculptures, 
bottles of wine and liquor, the handles of shoe-polishing brushes, 
brand-new horse saddles, children's toys, silicon bags surgically inserted 
in a woman's thighs and even in cadavers.

Law-enforcement efforts are further hindered by leftist guerrillas and 
right-wing paramilitary forces who protect coca crops and trafficking networks.

With one stupendous piece of evidence -- but no suspects they could put 
their hands on -- investigators had to fill in the picture with educated 
guesswork. There was some precedent for the case. In the mid-90's, 
government forces intercepted two homemade fiberglass minisubs and two more 
under construction. But even the largest of these vessels was less than 
half the size of what the Cartagenita submarine would have been. With a 
strong double hull, it could have descended to depths of 100 meters -- deep 
enough to evade many sonar devices -- and could travel 2,000 nautical miles 
and remain 13 days at sea with a crew of five, says Captain Idrobo.

By Idrobo's calculation, the sub was 50 percent completed and had already 
cost at least $5 million.

He figures the designers planned to cart the craft out to the coast "naked" 
- -- no motors, no electronics, no propeller, no periscope -- and then 
assemble it there.

But which coast?

The Pacific is closer to Bogota and has calmer waters, and the coast isn't 
as closely monitored or densely populated as the Caribbean shoreline.

On the other hand, the Caribbean offers access to smugglers' hideaways in 
the islands and a direct route to Europe.

The submarine probably would have ferried its load to a drop point -- a 
hidden port or at sea -- and smaller, speedier boats would then distribute 
the cargo.

The former Colombian national police director, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, 
among others, says he believes that the submarine was financed by a 
consortium that intended to smuggle out cocaine and return with arms, dirty 
money, maybe even escaped convicts or guerrillas. Since the breakup of the 
monopolistic Medellin and Cali cartels, narcotraffickers have operated in 
smaller organizations and looked for ways to spread the risk, sometimes by 
pooling shipments.

In a recent 2.5-ton cocaine haul in Venezuela, for instance, the police 
discovered that 12 different traffickers were involved.

Maj. Juan Carlos Montero, a former director of the investigative arm of the 
national police, offers another theory: the builder of the sub is not a 
narcotrafficker himself. "He builds the submarine, then sells the service," 
says Montero. "He doesn't sell the drugs, he doesn't know where the cargo 
is going. He just rents out the submarine to a variety of people."

As for the two Russians, police speculate they were providing the 
technological know-how. Their shadowy presence has stoked suspicions that 
Russian crime organizations are developing strong contacts with Colombian 
narcotraffickers and leftist rebels.

Such talk has made the Russian Embassy in Bogota very defensive. "We still 
don't have evidence of the presence of Russian criminals in Colombia," says 
an embassy spokesman, Dimitri Belov, who adds that there are only about 450 
Russian residents in the country. "There are a lot of rumors, a lot of 
noise, but it always turns out to be an exaggeration."

Serrano, who was head of the Colombian national police from 1994 until 
earlier this year, admits that evidence of Russian criminal pres-ence in 
Colombia is thin, adding, "The Russians have been scared to come to 
Colombia because they are easily detected and because they have respect for 
the Colombia mafias and their violence." But he and other law-enforcement 
officials in Colombia and the United States say they've tracked a short but 
irrefutable history of Russians trading arms for Colombian narcotics.

In the last several years, the Colombian national police have seized 
shipments of AK-47's, grenades and ammunition manufactured in former 
Soviet-bloc countries. There has also been a huge and suspicious surge in 
telephone traffic between Colombia and Russia.

One of the most celebrated intersections of Russian and Colombian criminal 
interests also concerned a submarine.

In 1997, Ludwig Fainberg, the Russian owner of a Miami strip club, was 
indicted for trying to negotiate the purchase of a Soviet-era Russian 
submarine and eight Mi-8 military helicopters on behalf of Colombian drug 

According to an assistant United States attorney in Miami who developed the 
case, the submarine was going to travel to a point off the coast of the 
United States. Then drugs, packed into capsules attached to buoys, would be 
fired through the submarine's torpedo tubes and float at sea until 
speedboats made the pickup. Fainberg, who went by the nickname Tarzan, 
eventually pleaded guilty to racketeering.

In the afternoon following the Cartagenita raid, the police were 
optimistic. "Hopefully by tonight we'll have captures," Leo Arreguin Jr., 
head of the Colombia office of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, 
told me at the warehouse as he and other officials climbed around the 
submarine and posed for pictures.

But so far, there have been no arrests.

In fact, Colombian authorities have yet to declare that a crime has been 

It is illegal to operate a submarine in Colombian territorial waters 
without design approval and an operational license, but there is no law 
prohibiting the building of one.

Neighbors claim to know very little of what was going on at the warehouse, 
except to say that it was a nuisance. "Soldering, hammering, sanding, 
sometimes as late as 1 or 2 in the morning," says Jorge Perdomo, who until 
recently operated a small cafeteria at the adjoining gas station. "They 
didn't let us sleep!" But the workmen kept to themselves, and Perdomo and 
his wife had very little contact with them. Their story roughly matched the 
ones I was told by four gas station employees as well as by a local smith 
and by a man from the nearby town of Facatativa who supplied drinking water 
to the complex. (The tradesmen's names and numbers were scrawled in pen on 
the inside wall of the warehouse.) "The people working in there were very 
hermetic," says Pablo Neira.

Neira and others say they usually saw no more than about four or five 
people on site. The foreigners, possibly as many as 10 over the course of a 
year, by one gas station worker's recollection, would arrive and depart in 
new-model four-wheel-drive utility vehicles; the Colombian laborers would 
take public buses and sometimes spend the night in the warehouse.

They said a woman with an accent that identified her as from the Caribbean 
coast of Colombia cooked for the men in the bungalow.

The American was tall, fit, spoke decent Spanish and "never showed any fear 
or worry," says Neira. The gas station workers say they never made contact 
with any other foreigners. And a man who for the past five years has been 
selling hot food under a tarp across the road from the warehouse says he 
saw the same people -- Colombian laborers, the American -- entering and 
exiting the site for "about three years," not just the year and a half 
reflected in the lease.

He asked that his name not be used, excused himself and hustled off down 
the road.

"There are things you can say and there are things you can't say," confided 
one gas station employee. "If I get involved, something could happen to 
me." That's how it is in a country where nearly all crimes go unpunished 
and a good, clean, untraceable murder can be ordered for less than $50. You 
can build your own submarine and ensure that your next-door neighbors never 
know. Or at least never tell.
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