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Submarines: Not So Impossible After All
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October 29, 2013: Two years after Colombian police rounded up the gang that built submarines and semisubmersible boats for transporting cocaine from Colombia to Central America and Mexico, the trial of one of the key personnel revealed much about how this project was carried out. Police suspected that the drug gangs had bribed members of the Colombian Navy to carry out this scheme and five of those arrested were retired or on active duty with the Colombian Navy (which operates two 1970s era German built Type 209 submarines). The leader (Mauner Mahecha) of the project was a guy in his early 30s with no boat building experience but excellent organizational and leadership skills.

Mahecha had a huge budget and used it to find and hire men with the needed skills or experience with submarines. Mahecha also quickly recruited additional specialists as needed and obtained whatever materials the builders called for. His project built three submarines, and the project was shut down because one of the men recruited (an experienced engine mechanic working for the Colombian Navy) managed to tip off the Colombian Navy intelligence and then the U.S. about the project. None of the three subs entered service. There were also no leaks as the tipster agreed to take the job offer in 2010 and risk his life to report details of the submarine building operation. The tipster had been recruited (for $50,000) to serve on the crew of one of the subs. U.S., Colombian, and Ecuadoran police quickly acted on the information and shut down the sub building operation, as well as much of the drug gang that was financing it.

The tipsters’ identity would have remained a secret but one of the twenty-one people prosecuted (in the United States, where gangs could not bribe or shoot their way out of jail) demanded a jury trial (and was convicted). Because of the trial the tipster (now living in witness protection in the U.S. with his family) had to reveal details of the case that would have remained secret if all the accused had accepted plea deals. 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 put a lot of effort into finding the specialists responsible for designing and building these craft. The gangs were usually pretty effective at keeping their secrets, but in this case it was one honest man who stopped the subs from entering service. Apparently no one else has tried to build the subs, as none have been detected nor has there been any chatter about them among the drug gangs being monitored by intel agencies. But the potential to try it again remains.

The Mahecha submarines, when closely examined by experts, turned out to be 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 diesel-electric power supply (up to two-hundred and forty-nine lead-acid batteries), diving and surfacing system, and navigational systems of captured subs were all in working order. Those who built these boats apparently borrowed much from recreational subs. The sub builders also had impressive knowledge of the latest materials used to build exotic boats.

The three fiberglass/Kevlar submarines were obviously built to transport cocaine to North America and the existence of a building effort had been detected by intel agencies. For several years before the submarine boat yard was discovered 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 didn't run very deep (less than twenty meters/sixty-two feet), they are invisible to most sensors when completely submerged. These subs were designed to run on batteries for up to eighteen 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. By capturing these subs it was possible to run the engines and get a sound profile of this type of boat and equip American sonar systems with this data. These subs had a range (on internal fuel) of about twelve-thousand kilometers. Thus, the boat could get from Colombia to southern California and back. These drug gangs spent over two million on each of these subs.

The most potent weapon the U.S. Navy has against these tiny (less than thirty-four meters/one-hundred foot long) subs is heat sensors, but even that may have had limited effectiveness. That’s because one of the subs captured had a snorkel type device (a tall structure extending from the conning tower, which contained pipes allowing diesel exhaust to escape and fresh air to be brought into the submerged boa..) 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. A snorkel, however, puts out less heat that a sub running on the surface would and is harder to detect. When running on batteries there is no heat to detect.

The submarine building operation was close to an Ecuadoran river, near the Colombian border, and the completed boats could have been quickly moved from the hidden ship yard to the river and then out into the Pacific Ocean. One twenty-three point five meter (seventy-three foot) long, three meter (nine feet) in diameter boat was nearly complete and capable of submerging. This boat had a periscope, conning tower, and was air conditioned. It had 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. The five man crew would work shifts to take care of navigation and steering the boat. The boat could submerge to about sixteen meters (fifty feet). At that depth, the batteries and oxygen on board allowed the sub to travel up thirty-eight kilometers in one hour, or at a speed of nine kilometers an hour for five to six 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 camp for the sub builders appeared to house about fifty people. A lot of evidence was collected during the raid on the yard and the U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) used that to develop clues about who was involved. The Ecuadoran boat was not the first sub drug gangs attempted to build. Over 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. More and more of these new type of semi-submersible subs are being found at sea and some have been captured intact.

The semi-submersible 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 several hidden ship yards where these boats are built. In the last two decades, since this type of smuggling "submarine" was first encountered, the Colombian military has captured over seventy of them. Many more were apparently sunk by their crews, after delivering their cargo to Mexico.

A typical Colombian "semi-submersible" is 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 semi-submersible boats into fully submersible ones.

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