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The Battle For the East Pacific
by James Dunnigan
March 21, 2010

For the first time this year, the Colombian Navy found and destroyed a semi-submersible drug smuggling boat. This one was found near the Ecuador border, and was nearly 17 meters (55 feet) long and capable of carrying at least eight tons of cocaine. Troops also found a workshop and a camp (for at least 30 people) that apparently supported construction of the boat. Last year, the navy caught 20 of these boats (at sea and on land). In the last seventeen years, since this type of smuggling "submarine" was first encountered, the Colombian military has captured 54 of them.

In the last five years, U.S., and other navy and coast guard ships off the coast between Mexico and Colombia, have detected nearly 200 of these subs. Between 2000 and 2007, only 23 of these boats were spotted. But now, over 70 a year are detected or captured. Many of the captures are the result of intelligence information at the source, not air and naval patrols out there just looking for them. These boats are hard to spot (by aircraft or ships), which is why they are being used more often.

It's estimated that about 75 of these subs are being built in northwest Colombia each year, and sent on one way trips north. Each of these boats carries a four man crew and about seven tons of cocaine (worth nearly $200 million on the street). The loss of each boat and its cargo cost the Colombian drug cartels over $10 million in costs (of building the boat and producing the drugs). The crews are often Colombian fishermen forced to make the long voyage, because their families were being held hostage. Running these boats is considered very dangerous work, and the crews are paid well if they succeed, whether they volunteered for the work or not. Because of the risks (about ten percent are believed lost at sea), the boats are nicknamed "coffins." The crews are told to pull the plug (literally) and sink the boat (and its cargo) if spotted and about to be boarded. Even with the boarding party on the way, jumping off a sinking boat, usually at night, is dangerous. Laws have been changed so that the crews escaping from their sinking boats, can still be charged with drug smuggling (despite the loss of the evidence). The drug gangs are looking into automating the boats, so that no crew is needed at all.

These semi-submersible "submarines" have been operating off the northwest (Pacific) coast of South America for over a decade. More than a third of the of the 800 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia each year leaves via the Pacific coast subs, that move the drugs north. Despite increased efforts, it's believed that less than ten percent of these subs have been caught. The drug gangs still use other smuggling methods (aircraft, hidden in ship or aircraft cargo), but apparently the subs can move the most cocaine at once, with the lowest risk.

A typical Colombian "semi-submersibles" is a 60 foot long and 12 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 is the only practical kind of submarine for drug smuggling. A real submarine, capable of carrying five tons of cocaine, would cost a lot more, and require a highly trained crew. Moreover, a conventional sub actually spends most of its time running on the surface anyway, or just beneath it using a snorkel device to obtain air for the diesel engine crew. So the drug subs get the most benefit of a real submarine (which cost about $300 million these days) at a fraction of the cost. Actually, there are commercial subs available, for under $10 million, but the construction and sale of these are regulated. Drug gangs hate paperwork.

Local boat builders created and refined the current semi-submersible design. Some foreign experts have been seen in the area, apparently to help the boat builders with some technical problem. These subs cost over $700,000 to construct, and carry up to ten tons of cocaine. The boat builders are getting rich, constructing the boats in well hidden locations up the rivers that empty into the Pacific.

 At one point it was thought that as many as half of the subs were captured or lost at sea. But this is apparently not the case. That's because most of these subs are built for a one way trip. This keeps down the cost of construction, and the cost of hiring a crew (who fly home). That one voyage will usually be for about a thousand kilometers, with the boat moving at a speed of 15-25 kilometers an hour. The average trip will take about two weeks, because the boats have learned to go very slowly during the day, to avoid leaving a wake that U.S. airborne sensors can detect.

In the past, some subs making long range trips were caught while being towed by a larger ship. Apparently the plan was to tow a semi-submersible, loaded with a ten ton cocaine cargo, long distances, and then be cut it loose for the final approach to the shore of California or some area in Europe or on the east coast of North America. While the subs are most frequently used from the Pacific coast of Colombia, they are showing up elsewhere as well (in Spain and Sri Lanka).

These subs are not stealthy enough to avoid detection all the time, and the U.S. has been trying to tweak search radars, and other types of sensors, to more reliably detect the drug subs.

These stealthy boats are a concern to counter-terror officials. Bombs and terrorists can be transported in these vessels, and the technology for building them can be, and perhaps already has, spread to terrorist groups. The basic principles are available on the Internet, and any skilled boat builders can construct them. The technology is improving as well. Recently captured boats had a system installed that cooled the engine exhaust, making it more difficult for infrared (heat) sensors to spot it.

 


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