Sea Transportation: The Central American Submarine War



August 10, 2011: Back on July 13th, a semi-submersible cocaine transport was spotted by the Honduran Navy, 26 kilometers off the coast. The four man crew of the drug boat abandoned ship, which they also sank. The four drug crewmen were picked up, and thought they would soon be freed (because there was no evidence of their illegal cargo). But they were shocked to discover that they were in shallow coastal waters, and that their drug transport was only about 34 meters (105 feet) down. The navy quickly brought in divers (before anyone else could) and began retrieving the cocaine. Some 2.5 tons has been brought to the surface. This much cocaine was worth about $5 million to the drug gangs in Colombia. But once the drugs reached the United States, the stuff would sell for over $50 million. The Hondurans believe that the sunken drug boat was carrying at least five tons of cocaine. The United States has offered to extradite and prosecute the four crewmen.

These semisubmersible boats normally operate in deep water (too deep to recover economically), and are being slowly replaced by real (if crude) submarines. The Colombian Navy has found and destroyed dozens of semi-submersible drug smuggling boats being built in, and operating out of, Ecuador and Colombia. Troops have found workshops, with a nearby camp (for the builders) for 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 boat, 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. But the U.S. Navy developed ways to detect the semisubmersibles. In response, the gangs found people able to turn their semisubmersible boats into fully submersible ones.

Meanwhile, the search continued for the brains behind these submarines and semi-submersibles. Earlier this year, police captured Ignacio Alvarez Meyendorff, one of the people responsible for organizing the ship and submarine building effort. 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.

The most potent weapon the U.S. Navy has against these tiny (less than 34 meters/100 foot long) subs and semisubmersibles is heat sensors. Even the subs use a snorkel type device (a tall structure extending from the conning tower, that contain 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.


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