Colombia Traffickers Moving Drugs Via Submersibles

The hold area of a submersible i i

The hold area of a submersible, near the bow of the vessel, where cocaine was stored. Juan Forero, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Forero, NPR
The hold area of a submersible

The hold area of a submersible, near the bow of the vessel, where cocaine was stored.

Juan Forero, NPR
One of three submersibles i i

One of three submersibles at the Colombian navy's base in Malaga Bay on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Juan Forero, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Forero, NPR
One of three submersibles

One of three submersibles at the Colombian navy's base in Malaga Bay on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.

Juan Forero, NPR
Lt. Manuel Higuera i i

Lt. Manuel Higuera stands near an engine from a submersible. Juan Forero, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Forero, NPR
Lt. Manuel Higuera

Lt. Manuel Higuera stands near an engine from a submersible.

Juan Forero, NPR

With huge profits as the lure, drug traffickers in Colombia use every possible method to ship their cocaine to market. And, if the latest trend is any sign, they're as ingenious as ever.

Colombia's navy has been detecting the increasing use of submarines to transport tons of cocaine.

In popular lore, the submarine is like Red October — the ultra-modern, nuclear-powered vessel from the 1990 hit movie.

Alec Baldwin, playing the CIA analyst Jack Ryan, tells an astonished war room about the submarine's existence — and the mortal peril it poses.

But that's Hollywood.

In Colombia, naval officials are making their own discovery — and wondering how much of a danger it is to their country.

The vessels here are nothing like Red October. They're more like the diesel-electric powered death traps of the turn of the century. Then, a four-man crew would be locked inside a tight compartment with no bathroom or ventilation, let alone a galley or sleeping quarters.

In Colombia, a similar boat sits at the main Pacific naval base at Malaga Bay. The cigar-shaped vessel is 60 feet long. It can travel at 10 knots and reach Central America — a 1,100-mile journey — in four days. Most importantly, its cargo hold can carry 10 tons of cocaine, worth $200 million.

"This craft comes with a fiberglass cover, on the outside and on the inside," says Lt. Manuel Higuera.

Indeed, that's what gives the vessel a leg up over the navy. With little metal to speak of, it's hard to detect with sonar.

Capt. Gustavo Angel, who commands the 18-vessel naval flotilla based in Malaga Bay, is experienced in fighting drug trafficking on the high seas.

He has commanded patrol boats that have stopped high-speed boats laden with cocaine. And he's commanded marine units that venture deep along the estuaries near the coast to discover clandestine jungle shipyards where the vessels are made.

He explains that the vessels aren't submarines in the strict sense. Submarines dive, and these don't — though most of the craft glides under the water.

They're submersibles. Still, he respects the engineering, which he says is getting better.

"It's a submarine that has good lines; it's more difficult to detect. It's harder to detect with radar. It's better technology," Angel says.

Still, the Colombian and American navies have stopped plenty of the vessels — 13 in 2007 — which is more than in all the years combined since 1993, when the first subs were detected, Angel says.

One sub, stopped by Americans, meant several tons of cocaine were prevented from reaching U.S. shores.

The naval base's role in interdicting cocaine is on display every day. The yards are full of craft that have been stopped. There are the three submersibles, go-fasts (the speedboats made in the jungle and put out to sea with cocaine), and old fishing boats, also used to haul drugs.

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