Pubdate: Sat, 6 Jun 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Authors: William Booth and Juan Forero, Washington Post Foreign Service
Note: Booth reported from Mexico and Florida. Forero reported from Colombia.


MEXICO CITY -- When anti-narcotics agents first heard that drug
cartels were building an armada of submarines to transport cocaine,
they thought it was a joke. Now U.S. law enforcement officials say
that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States
from Colombia travels in submersibles.

An experimental oddity just two years ago, these strange
semi-submarines are the cutting edge of drug trafficking today. They
ferry hundreds of tons of cocaine for powerful Mexican cartels that
are taking over the Pacific Ocean route for most northbound shipments,
according to the Colombian navy.

The sub-builders are even trying to develop a remote-controlled model,
officials say.

"That means no crew. That means just cocaine, or whatever, inside the
boat," said Michael Braun, a former chief of operations at the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Administration.

The subs are powered by ordinary diesel engines and built of simple
fiberglass in clandestine shipyards in the Colombian jungle. U.S.
officials expect 70 or more to be launched this year with a potential
cargo capacity of 380 tons of cocaine, worth billions of dollars in
the United States.

"This is definitely the next generation of smuggling conveyance," said
Joseph Ruddy, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa who prosecutes

The submersibles are equipped with technologies that make them
difficult to intercept, even though U.S. forces use state-of-the-art
submarine warfare strategies against them. Authorities say most slip
through their net.

"You try finding a floating log in the middle of the Pacific," one DEA
agent said.

U.S. officials and their Colombian counterparts have detected evidence
of more than 115 submersible voyages since 2006. They have apprehended
the crews of more than 22 submersibles at sea since 2007. Six crews
have been arrested this year. The Colombian navy has intercepted or
discovered 33 subs since 1993.

U.S. officials fear that the rogue vessels could be used by terrorists
intent on reaching the United States with deadly cargos.

Daytime Drift

The vessels do not fully submerge but skim the sea surface. They move
quickly at night, then drift like sleeping whales during the day.
Under cover of darkness, they slither out of Colombia's shallow rivers
and 10 days later rendezvous offshore along the Central American
coast, usually near Guatemala, where cocaine is offloaded and the subs
are sunk.

Smugglers first experimented with heavy steel subs dubbed "coffin
ships" by the Colombians. Trial and error quickly advanced their

"These vessels are intelligently designed. They are not very
comfortable, but they are now very seaworthy. They are capable of
carrying multi-ton cargos. They can travel thousands of miles without
refuel or resupply. And they are very hard to detect," said U.S. Coast
Guard Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, director of the Joint Interagency Task
Force South, which pursues drug interdiction in the Caribbean and
eastern Pacific Ocean.

Nimmich stood on a dock at the task force's headquarters in Key West,
Fla., beside a vessel dubbed Big Foot II. Captured last year 350 miles
off the Guatemalan-Mexican coast, the sub had a four-man Colombian
crew and 6.4 tons of cocaine aboard, worth more than $100 million.

Almost 60 feet long, the craft employed water-cooled exhaust mufflers
to reduce its infrared heat signal. It was camouflaged in blue-gray
paint. A small conning tower jutted from the deck at an angle designed
to confuse radar signals.

The latest submersibles can go 3,000 miles without

"You don't want to see one of these trekking up the Hudson River,"
Ruddy said.

Officials estimate that the subs cost about $1 million to manufacture
in Colombia. Colombian officials say some former military personnel
might be helping to design, construct and direct the vessels.

Colombian navy Adm. Guillermo Barrera said the subs usually carry 4 to
10 tons of cocaine. They typically have a crew of four -- including a
captain, an engineer and a seaman, known as "braceros," or "arms," who
help steer and unload the cocaine. The fourth crew member is usually a
representative of the owner. With cargos worth $100 million or more,
"you want to know where they're headed," Barrera said.

According to officials, crews are well compensated, splitting as much
as $500,000. The work is dangerous; the subs cross stormy sea lanes
without lights, with a shifting ballast of fuel and drugs. The cabins
are hot and cramped, with a bucket for a latrine and a floor to sleep

U.S. officials say submersibles are escorted by countersurveillance
vessels, disguised as fishing trawlers, that warn them of nearby navy
cutters or spotter planes. Nimmich said the sub crews use radios
infrequently and speak in code. Until recently, submariners caught by
authorities could not be charged in the United States or Colombia if
the cocaine was scuttled.

"The vessels are built to sink. When they open the valves, tons of
water come in, and in a minute, or a minute and a half, they sink,"
Barrera said. "There is no evidence, and what starts as a counterdrug
operation becomes a rescue operation."

U.S. and Colombian agents have been frustrated in this cat-and-mouse
game. "With no drugs found, we couldn't prosecute," said Ruddy, the
assistant U.S. attorney. At least eight crews have been returned to
Colombia after rescue, without being charged.

In response, last fall the U.S. Congress passed the Drug Trafficking
Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008, which makes it a crime to ply
international waters in stateless vessels with the intent of evading
detection. The maximum sentence is 15 years. So far, three crews have
either entered pleas or been found guilty under the new statute.
Colombia has responded with a similar law that awaits final approval.

Accused Builder

Last August, Colombian authorities arrested Gustavo Adolfo de Jesus
Garcia, alias "The Engineer," the alleged mastermind of a sub-building
syndicate, and Lope Antonio Lopez, known as "El Gringo," accused of
brokering deals with Mexican cartels eager to move tons of cocaine to
Mexico via submersibles.

Garcia and Lopez, authorities said, were focused on the manufacturing
side of the business, building bigger, stealthier, sleeker vessels.
Colombian police say the men were also offering something new -- drone
subs operated by remote control

In a recent telephone interview with The Washington Post, Lopez said
from a prison in Colombia that he had nothing to do with the submarine
network. But he shed light on how the boat-building enterprise might

Lopez said that in 2007 he was selling fishing boats to Venezuela's
government. As part of the job, he headed to Panama City to purchase
diesel engines. While there, a friend suggested that he have lunch
with a man with Mexican clients. At the lunch, the man asked Lopez to
build semi-submersibles. "They look for someone who could do the
fiberglass construction," Lopez said.

Lopez insisted he walked out of the meeting when he realized it was
about drug trafficking. He was extradited to the United States on drug
trafficking charges in May.
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