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Finding The Brains Behind The Cocaine Boats
by James Dunnigan
May 16, 2011

Since cocaine cartels in South America began using submarines and semi-submersible craft to transport cocaine north in the 1990s, the U.S. and Colombia have been desperately seeking the specialists responsible for designing and building these craft. Recently, Argentina revealed they had arrested one of the main organizers of the sub building operation. The suspect, Ignacio Alvarez Meyendorff, is identified as working for the Colombian Norte del Valle drug cartel, and in charge of logistics for the submarine project. It's believed that Meyendorff was tracked down via information obtained by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).

Earlier this year, ONI sent a team down to Ecuador to do a thorough technical analysis of one of the two submarines found down there in the last eight months. The ONI team spent 48 hours going over the small sub, and concluded that it was more sophisticated than first thought. The outer hull was made out of strong, lightweight, Kevlar/carbon fiber that was sturdy enough to keep the sub intact, but very difficult to detect with most sensors. The hull could not survive deep dives, but this boat didn't have to go deep to get the job done. The ONI team concluded that the diesel-electric power supply, diving and surfacing system and navigational system were all in working order. Some of those who built this boat probably had experience building recreational subs. The sub builders also had impressive knowledge of the latest materials used to build exotic boats. As the ONI team assembled all their findings, it became clear that something extraordinary was happening in these improvised jungle shipyards. ONI took some samples back to for further examination, and more precise identification.

The two fiberglass/Kevlar submarines found so far were obviously built to transport cocaine to North America. Neither the United States, nor anyone else who might know, are talking about how many of these subs are out there, or believed to be in operation or under construction. Similar type boats could be built for terrorist or espionage missions.

For several years now, the U.S. Navy, in cooperation with some Central and South American navies, have been looking for these subs, at sea and on land. While these submarines don't run very deep (less than 20 meters/62 feet), they are invisible to most sensors when completely submerged. These subs were designed to run on batteries for up to 18 hours, before having to surface and recharge. When they are at sea, they usually operate their diesel engines. These are noisy. Sonar can pick up this noise over a long distance, and now that two of them have been captured, it's been possible to run the engines and get a sound profile of this type of boat, and equip American sonar systems with this data. The ONI team calculated that the sub they examined had a range (on internal fuel) of about 12,000 kilometers. Thus the boat could get from Colombia to southern California, and back.

The most potent weapon the U.S. Navy has against these tiny (less than 34 meters/100 long) subs is heat sensors. One of the two subs captured had a snorkel type device (a tall structure extending from the conning tower, that contained pipes allowing diesel exhaust to escape and fresh air to be brought into the submerged boat.) It's this heat that airborne sensors can detect. All surface (or semi-submerged) ships at sea display this kind of "heat signature", and capturing working examples of these cocaine smuggling subs makes it possible to get a better idea of what the airborne heat sensors should be looking for.

It was only last July that Ecuadoran police found the first real diesel-electric cocaine carrying submarine. It was nearly completed, and ready to go into a nearby river, near the Colombian border, and move out into the Pacific ocean. The 23.5 meter/73 foot long, three meter/nine feet in diameter boat was capable of submerging. The locally built boat had a periscope, conning tower and was air conditioned. It had a commercial fish sonar mounted up front, so that it could navigate safely while underwater. There was a toilet on board, but no galley (kitchen) or bunks. Submarine experts believed that a five man crew could work shifts to take care of navigation and steering the boat. The boat could submerge to about 16 meters (50 feet). At that depth, the batteries and oxygen on board allowed the sub to travel up 38 kilometers in one hour, or at a speed of 9 kilometers an hour for 5-6 hours. This would be sufficient to escape any coastal patrol boats that spotted the sub while it moved along on the surface (its normal travel mode.) The boat could also submerge to avoid very bad weather. The sub carried sufficient diesel fuel to make a trip from Ecuador to Mexico. There was a cargo space that could hold up to seven tons of cocaine. The sub was built using fiberglass panels fitted over a wooden frame. It was designed by someone who knew how to build boats, and may have worked for one of several firms that now produce "recreational submarines."

The sub was captured where it was being assembled, and a nearby camp for the builders, appeared to house about fifty people. A lot of evidence was collected, and apparently the U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) used that, and the ONI analysis of materials and components, to develop clues about who was involved. It was the DEA that put together the pieces that led to identifying Meyendorff and locating him in Argentina.

The Ecuadoran boat was the first such sub to be completed, but not the first to be attempted. A decade ago, Russian naval architects and engineers were discovered among those designing and building a similar, but larger, boat. However, that effort did not last, as the Russian designs were too complex and expensive. It was found easier to build semi-submersible craft. But more and more of these new type subs are being found.

The other sub was found in southern Colombia earlier this year. Like the first sub, it was not military grade. It could travel submerged, but not dive deep. It was built using the same fiberglass material used for the more numerous semi-submersible craft, but was larger. It probably cost several million dollars to build and was weeks away from completion and sea trials. The drug sub was similar to the small subs being built since the 1970s for offshore oil operations and underwater tourism.

Meanwhile, the semisubmersible boats continue to operate. The Colombian Navy has found and destroyed semi-submersible drug smuggling boats being built in, and operating out of, Ecuador and Colombia. Troops have found workshops, with a nearby camp (for at least 30 people) that apparently support construction of these boats. In the last two decades, since this type of smuggling "submarine" was first encountered, the Colombian military has captured over 60 of them. Many more were apparently sunk by their crews, after delivering their cargo to Mexico.

A typical Colombian "semi-submersible" is a 20 meter/63 foot long and 4 meter/12.5 feet wide, fiberglass boats, powered by a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning tower", providing the crew (usually of four), and engine, with fresh air, and permitting the crew to navigate the boat. A boat of this type was long thought to be the only practical kind of submarine for drug smuggling. The gangs are enterprising, and eventually found people able to turn their semisubmersible boats into fully submersible ones. Meyendorff was part of a team that gathered the materials, designs and skilled artisans needed to construct the subs and semi-submersibles in riverside building sites deep in the jungle. If Meyendorff had any additional data with him (on a laptop or smart phone), or was made to talk, expect more arrests and revelations.

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