Pubdate: Sun, 26 Apr 2009
Source: New York Times Magazine (NY)
Page: MM30
Contact:  2009 The New York Times Company
Note: The New York Times Magazine is a section of the Sunday edition 
of the New York Times
Author: David Kushner
Note: David Kushner is the author of "Levittown: Two Families, One 
Tycoon and the Fight for Civil Rights in America's Legendary Suburb." 
He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Wired.


THE CRAFT FIRST surfaced like something out of a science-fiction 
movie. It was November 2006, and a Coast Guard cutter spotted a 
strange blur on the ocean 100 miles off Costa Rica. As the cutter 
approached, what appeared to be three snorkels poking up out of the 
water became visible. Then something even more surprising was 
discovered attached to the air pipes: a homemade submarine carrying 
four men, an AK-47 and three tons of cocaine.

Today, the 49-foot-long vessel bakes on concrete blocks outside the 
office of Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich in Key West, Fla. Here, at the 
Joint Interagency Task Force South, Nimmich commands 
drug-interdiction efforts in the waters south of the United States. 
Steely-eyed, gray-haired and dressed in a blue jumpsuit, he showed me 
the homemade sub one hot February afternoon like a hunter flaunting 
his catch. "We had rumors and indicators of this for a very long 
period beforehand," he told me, which is why they nicknamed it Bigfoot.

This kind of vessel - a self-propelled, semisubmersible made by hand 
in the jungles of Colombia - is no longer quite so mythic: four were 
intercepted in January alone. But because of their ability to elude 
radar systems, these subs are almost impossible to detect; only an 
estimated 14 percent of them are stopped. And perhaps as many as 70 
of them will be made this year, up from 45 or so in 2007, according 
to a task-force spokesman. Made for as little as $500,000 each and 
assembled in fewer than 90 days, they are now thought to carry nearly 
30 percent of Colombia's total cocaine exports.

These subs are the most ingenious innovation in the drug trade. But 
as Joe Biden told Congress last July, that's not the only reason they 
pose "a significant danger to the United States." In late January, a 
Sri Lankan Army task force found three semisubs being built by Tamil 
rebels in the jungles of Mullaitivu. "With this discovery the [Tamil] 
will go down in history as the first terrorist organization to 
develop underwater weapons," the Sri Lankan ministry of defense declared.

Nimmich said, "If you can carry 10 tons of cocaine, you can carry 10 
tons of anything."

Bigfoot isn't just a trophy. It's a reminder of the ever-escalating 
cat-and-mouse game of drug interdiction. Before the subs, the battle 
focused on fishing vessels and "go fast" boats. In 2006, improved 
intelligence and radar detection from helicopters and cutters helped 
remove a record 256 metric tons of cocaine from what is estimated to 
have been more than a thousand metric tons that moved through the 
U.S. and Central and South American transit zones that year. But that 
led to the next wave of smuggling vessels. "Like any business, if 
you're losing more and more of your product, you try to find a 
different way," Nimmich said.

Early drug-sub experiments date back to the mid-1990s. In 1995, an 
emigre from the former Soviet Union was arrested in Miami after 
trying to broker the sale of an old Soviet sub from the Russian mafia 
to the Colombian cartels. In 2000, the Colombian police found Russian 
documents scattered in a warehouse in a suburb of Bogota alongside a 
half-built, 100-foot-long submarine capable of carrying 200 tons of cocaine.

Building a fully submersible submarine is complicated and indiscreet, 
requiring highly skilled workers and a manufacturing facility that's 
too big to be easily hidden. The alternative: semisubmersibles that, 
though considerably smaller than the sub found in the warehouse, can 
carry five times as much cocaine as a common fishing vessel. Nimmich 
said the rise of semisubs has been traced to two unnamed men, a 
Pakistani and a Sri Lankan, who in early 2006 provided plans to the 
Colombians for building semisubs quickly, stealthily and out of 
cheap, commonly available materials. One of the biggest concerns when 
making a drug sub is that a laborer will reveal its location before 
the work is done. For this reason, the 15 or 20 people brought in to 
build a craft remain on site for the duration. They set up a campsite 
in the dense brush, relying on generators for electricity and make 
the ships by hand. When I asked Nimmich if he was impressed by their 
craftsmanship, he arched a brow and said: "You ever try to build 
something in your backyard? They're building these in the jungles."

AT THE BEGINNING of last September, a 44-year-old fisherman named 
Padro Mercedes Arboleda-Palacios left the town of Buenaventura for a 
two-day trip upriver into the Colombian jungle. After staying in a 
small hut for several days, he was led by four men with rifles on 
another boat to a vessel in the woods surrounded by six armed guards. 
It was el ataud, the coffin, the nickname Colombians gave to semisubs 
after a few were rumored to have disappeared at sea.

The subs' dangerous reputation hasn't stopped crew members - a 
captain, a navigator and two workers like Arboleda-Palacios - from 
taking the job. "Generally they don't have much of a criminal 
background," Adam Tanenbaum, an assistant federal public defender who 
has represented several drug-sub crew members, says. "They don't do 
it because they're in criminal life. They're doing it to survive." 
Arboleda-Palacios hadn't worked on a drug boat before, but when a 
friend said he could make $3,000 at it, he accepted.

In early September, according to the lawyer who would later represent 
him and shared his story with me, Arboleda-Palacios squeezed into the 
cramped boat. He and the three others stood in the middle section, 
the navigation room - barely 12 feet across by 6 feet wide. There was 
GPS gear, a couple of mattresses on benches and a splintery wooden 
steering wheel from a fishing boat. The engine was in the stern. Two 
hundred and ninety-five bales of cocaine, weighing more than seven 
tons and with a street value of $196 million, were crammed into the 
bow. Packages of dry noodles and bottled water were the crew's only provisions.

Two small, go-fast boats guided the semisub downriver and released 
the ship into the sea. As it crawled at barely seven miles per hour, 
water splashed over the porthole, making it all but impossible to see outside.

The captain called the base with his coordinates twice a day to get 
directions to the rendezvous point. Miles off the destination coast, 
a semisub is typically met by go-fast boats, which then take the 
cocaine to shore. Once their trips are complete, the subs are 
scuttled and abandoned - the cheapest and least conspicuous way to 
dispose of them. The crew then get the rest of their pay and are 
taken back home, if all goes well.

Two days after Arboleda-Palacios set out in the sub, his crew lost 
communication with the base. So they cut their engine and waited for 
contact as they drifted at sea.

IN THE DRUG-SUB hunt, one of Key West's top figures is a 28-year-old 
Naval Intelligence officer who spent years in the Navy on nuclear 
subs and is unabashedly earnest about taking on the cartels. "It 
sounds corny," he told me, "but I want to help make a better society."

The officer, whom the government does not want identified because it 
says doing so might jeopardize future missions, was standing atop the 
rocking surface of Bigfoot II, the only working semisub that has been 
captured, which now resides at the Joint Interagency Task Force 
South. The 59-foot-long ship bobbed off the docks of Key West like 
something from the world of "Mad Max." Two fat pipes in the aft 
twisted up from the flat top. There was a small square section raised 
in the middle with a thin rectangular window on each of the four 
sides. A hatch revealed the cramped navigation quarters inside that 
reeked of diesel - along with a snarl of cables and a faded wooden 
wheel for steering.

As Arboleda-Palacios was drifting elsewhere at sea last September, 
the U.S.S. McInerney spotted Bigfoot II 350 miles off the 
Mexico--Guatemala coast. When the McInerney crew boarded the vessel, 
the smugglers inside Bigfoot II reversed direction to try to knock 
them into the sea. But the McInerney crew broke in and found four 
Colombians and 6.4 tons of cocaine worth $107 million inside.

Catching, let alone spotting, the drug subs is difficult. The Naval 
Intelligence officer compared it to patrolling the entire country as 
a sheriff with three cars. "So if there's someone in Texas holding up 
a 7-Eleven, and somebody's in Baltimore mugging somebody," he said, 
"you have to move."

The cocaine packed inside provides a built-in ballast, giving the 
boats, which are painted the color of the ocean, about a foot of 
freeboard above the surface. With little or no steel, the 
fiberglass-and-wood boats have a low radar signature. Some semisubs 
use lead pads to shield the hot engines from the military's infrared 
sensors. Bigfoot II is among the newer models that have piping along 
the bottom to allow the water to cool the exhaust as the ship moves, 
making it even less susceptible to infrared detection.

"It's amazing what they can build in the mangrove swamps," the 
officer said, as he walked across the ship. "They take basic 
ingenuity and engineering and sculpt it to meet their needs." He went 
on to say, "To underestimate their intelligence is a mistake." 
Indeed, military and civilian researchers are racing to improve 
detection capabilities. In February, the officer spent a week driving 
Bigfoot II through the waters around Key West to test sensors used to 
identify the vehicles.

Daniel Stilwell, an engineer at the Autonomous Systems and Controls 
Laboratory at Virginia Tech, told me he is doing work for the Office 
of Naval Research on a small robotic boat that may one day be able 
"to operate 1,000 miles upriver and find the drug subs before they're 
ever deployed." But the Navy declined to reveal more. "Providing 
clues about new capabilities would encourage the traffickers to make 
tailored improvements that oppose these efforts," Peter Vietti, a 
spokesman, said.

THREE DAYS AFTER Bigfoot II was seized, another semisub was detected 
at sea, and the Coast Guard cutter Midgett was sent to intercept it. 
"It was like '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,' " said the boarding 
officer of the Midgett.

The Midgett crew seized Arboleda-Palacios and the other smugglers, 
along with the cocaine, though the sub sank as they did so. 
Frequently, drug subs are scuttled by crews facing capture, taking 
the legal evidence down with the ship. But confiscating the drugs is 
no longer as crucial as it once was. The Drug Trafficking Vessel 
Interdiction Assistance Act, which became law in October, now allows 
the United States to prosecute someone for merely being on board a 
semisub. Earlier this month, the first semisub crew members were 
convicted under this law (Arboleda-Palacios was sentenced under older 
drug laws to 108 months). Such a law does not exist in Colombia. But 
Colombia's defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told me that one is 
in the works and could be enacted as early as June. He said the 
country is also looking to ban certain plastics used in semisub 
production. "We're trying to detect small factories of these 
semisubmersibles," he said. "We have to be also as audacious in terms 
of inventing a way to detect them."

Legal and technical audacity may be required. As John Pike, a defense 
expert and the director of, told me, "If Al Qaeda 
decided they wanted to attack the homeland, or Iran decided they can 
attack the American homeland, this might be the way of getting in." 
Then he added, "This is the 21st-century equivalent of German U-boats."

How semisubs will evolve is difficult to predict, Nimmich said as we 
walked outside his office. Nearby, workers were putting up American 
flags and bleachers to celebrate an anniversary: the task force had 
been fighting the drug wars for 20 years. At some upcoming 
anniversary, it may be fighting fully submersible subs far 
underwater. Nimmich wouldn't put it past the cartels. "If I was in 
their business," he said, "it would be a technology I would be exploring."

The crew quarters of Bigfoot II, which was captured last September, 
had a repurposed wooden steering wheel from a fishing boat, above. 
Cocaine was stored in the bow, opposite page.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake