Pubdate: Tue, 06 Nov 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Page: Front Page, bottom, right
Author: Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Cited: Washington Office on Latin America
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Submersibles Are Used to Ferry Narcotics. Some in U.S. Fear the 
Tactic May Inspire Terrorists.

CALI, COLOMBIA -- It was on a routine patrol that the Colombian coast 
guard stumbled upon an eerie outpost amid the mangroves: a 
mini-shipyard where suspected drug traffickers were building submarines.

Perched on a makeshift wooden dry dock late last month were two 
55-foot-long fiberglass vessels, one ready for launch, the other 
about 70% complete. Each was outfitted with a 350-horsepower Cummins 
diesel engine and enough fuel capacity to reach the coast of Central 
America or Mexico, hundreds of miles to the north.

The vessels had cargo space that could fit 5 tons of cocaine, a 
senior officer with the Colombian coast guard's Pacific command said 
in an interview.

The design featured tubing for air, crude conning towers and cramped 
bunk space for a crew of four, he added.

Over the last two years, Colombian authorities and the U.S. Coast 
Guard and Navy have seized 13 submarine-like vessels outfitted for 
drug running. The five seized by American authorities were en route 
to Mexico or Central America, each loaded with 3 to 5 tons of cocaine.

The seizures point to a security threat that goes beyond drug 
trafficking. Many law enforcement officials are concerned that U.S. 
ports and shorelines could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks using 
such crudely built submarines.

"There could be 5 tons of anything on board these things," said a 
senior U.S. military official involved in the war on drugs.

Added a senior official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration 
in Colombia: "Any viable method to covertly transport large 
quantities of illicit drugs over long distances such as these 
[vessels] could conceivably be employed to transport other prohibited 

The boats have become increasingly sophisticated, evolving from huge 
tubes built to be towed by fishing or cargo boats to self-propelled 
vessels with ballast systems and communications equipment that leave 
no wake or radar profile as they glide just below the ocean surface.

The recent discovery in the Pacific Coast estuary about 25 miles 
south of the port city of Buenaventura reflects drug traffickers' 
growing use of such boats in the face of stepped-up operations by 
Colombian and U.S. anti-drug forces, experts here say.

The subs were probably commissioned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces 
of Colombia, or FARC, in whose zone of influence the shipyard was 
situated, according to the officer, who asked not to be identified 
for security reasons. The FARC is thought to be Colombia's most 
powerful drug-trafficking organization.

Military officials here and in the United States say the war on 
drugs, financed by billions of dollars in U.S. aid, is forcing drug 
runners to undertake ever more ingenious methods of transporting 
cocaine from Colombia, which produces about 90% of the drug consumed 
in the United States.

Proponents insist that the campaign is producing concrete results. 
They cite a 24% increase in cocaine street prices this year as 
reported by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The price bump was caused by the "disruption of cocaine flow," the 
office's director, John P. Walters, wrote in a letter to Rep. J. 
Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Improved surveillance and intelligence have led to spectacular busts 
this year, including the seizure last Tuesday in Manzanillo, Mexico, 
of 23 tons of cocaine hidden in a freight container aboard a Hong 
Kong-flagged vessel that had stopped in Buenaventura.

The bust "is going to have even more serious impact on cocaine price 
and purity levels here in the United States," a senior U.S. 
congressional aide said Friday.

Meanwhile, critics of the war on drugs warn that the price increase, 
as in past instances, may prove only temporary.

John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a watchdog 
organization, said a 45% price increase in early 2002 was quickly 
reversed as suppliers adjusted.

Walsh and others say counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia should 
focus less on interdiction and more on economic alternatives for coca 
farmers and others caught up in the industry.

In any event, the ever-changing tactics of Colombian drug traffickers 
targeting the lucrative U.S. market reflect a constant cat-and-mouse game.

"When we adjust to them, they adjust to us," said Rear Adm. Joseph 
Nimmich, commander of the Key West, Fla.-based Joint Interagency Task 
Force South, a multinational force set up to interdict oceangoing 
drug shipments.

"Their reaction to our greater surveillance and increased 
interdictions has been these self-propelled submersibles."

Are drug cartels resorting to submarines out of "desperation or just 
diversification? It's a combination of the two, with the greater 
emphasis on the former," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Ruddy, who 
heads Operation Panama Express, a Tampa, Fla.-based task force. The 
task force's interdictions have resulted in more than 1,100 drug 
traffickers being convicted since 2000.

The boats seized Oct. 28 are submarine-like, but officials here say a 
more accurate description is "self-propelled semi-submersible" craft 
because they do not dive and resurface like a true submarine.

Submarines are not new to drug trafficking, only more numerous, if 
the increase in seizures is any indication.

In what was the most spectacular bust involving a narco-submarine, 
police in September 2000 raided a warehouse near Bogota, the capital, 
and found a 100-foot-long submarine that was being built according to 
Russian plans.

The sub was thought to be a joint venture by Colombian and Russian 
drug mafias and would have been capable of carrying 10 tons of 
cocaine per trip had it been completed. Annual Colombian cocaine 
production is now estimated at 500 to 800 tons.

In 1995, police broke up a deal in which Colombia's Cali cartel had 
planned to buy a Russian submarine.

The know-how to build crude "submersibles" is readily available on 
the Internet and in back issues of Popular Mechanics magazine.

Hobbyists in the United States have formed the Personal Submersibles 
Organization; they conduct chats on the group's website,, 
and hold annual meetings.

But the vessels found on Colombia's Pacific shores last week were 
built for anything but recreation and certainly not by hobbyists.

The Colombian coast guard official said crew members of a submersible 
detained this year after their 55-foot vessel sank off the coast of 
Tumaco, Colombia, told police that they viewed the craft as a death 
trap but were lured by the $2,000 payment the drug magnates promised 
to pay them to guide the vessel to Central America.

Asked to describe the men detained, the coast guard official merely 
said: "Crazy."

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