NEAL CONAN, host:
For years, rumors circulated that drug cartels planned to build and operate submarines to smuggle cocaine past the Coast Guard. Authorities did find primitive submersibles designed for one-way trips up the Pacific Coast, but the whispers spoke of something far more ambitious: a full-sized super sub with the range for round trips and the capacity for tons of cargo. Nobody ever saw one, until now.
In the current issue of Wired magazine, Jim Popkin describes this Loch Ness monster of the drug trade: a sophisticated Kevlar-coated submarine built in the swampy jungles of Ecuador that would have been nearly impossible to detect.
Jim Popkin joins us here in Studio 3A.
Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JIM POPKIN (Writer, Wired Magazine): Thank you.
CONAN: And let's start with July 2, 2010. What happened on that day - the day that changed the dope - the drug smuggling game?
Mr. POPKIN: Well, the DEA had been looking for a long time and, as you said, Neal, hearing rumors about an actual fully-functioning submarine that might have been built near Colombia, Ecuador, and - but they considered it like Bigfoot. They thought maybe it exists, but we've seen proof of it yet.
On that day, about 150 Ecuadorian navy and police members were crashing through the jungle - it's a very remote area with mangrove forests - and they - I can't say they stumbled upon it, because they had pretty good intelligence, but they found, lying on its side at low tide, a 74-foot long fully-functioning submarine that has really changed the equation for interdiction of drugs in that area.
CONAN: Now, let's be precise. Those previous vessels were, well, sort of semi-submerged, just a little bit of the boat on top and used for one-way trips to crash land and bring hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds of cocaine in per trip. This is something on an entirely different scale.
Mr. POPKIN: It is, and I mean, not to take anything away from that construction and that engineering, that's been going on for more than 15 years, where they started with these cigarette boats that they would convert into semi-submersible vessels, which really means that they're almost completely submerged but they ride just under the waves, and part of the boat is visible. They have to, obviously, have an air supply.
CONAN: Yeah. But if it's wood, it's hard to pick up on radar.
Mr. POPKIN: It's very hard to pick up on radar, and the key thing is it can't dive. It just stays there. So if you happened by it or you're looking from high above, you can see some part of it coming out of the sea.
What is different here is that this is a submarine. It has a ballast system. It can go down. This one can only go to a depth of 62 feet, which is not very far and really doesn't give them much of a margin of error. However, if you need to go underwater, you can ride underwater for 18 hours at a clip, and it has a range of 6,800 nautical miles, which is, you know, pretty incredible.
CONAN: Or enough to go from that part of Ecuador to San Diego and back.
Mr. POPKIN: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
CONAN: And the Kevlar coating, yeah, as you say, it's not titanium-hulled. It doesn't give you much submerging room, but it also makes it stealthy.
Mr. POPKIN: Absolutely. And I was fortunate enough to be able to look at the U.S. Navy's technical assessment of this submarine - a 70-page long white paper - and they had a kind of very begrudging respect for the engineering that went behind this, and they had never seen a Kevlar- and carbon-fiber-coated submarine. It's new. It, obviously, has a wooden hull, but there's very little metal in it, and it is very, very hard to track.
When it goes under, it's almost completely silent. It operates with the use underwater of 249 massive batteries, lead-acid batteries. And like an old World War II sub, when it goes under, you can barely hear it all, so it's really difficult to track at sea.
CONAN: And interesting, a lot of the parts seem to be Chinese.
Mr. POPKIN: A lot of the parts are Chinese. But this is really a hodgepodge. There are American parts. They seemed to be - it seems kind to be target of opportunity here. Where they can get the parts for the engines and other key elements, they take them from around the globe. But it is interesting, and the Navy makes note that in many cases that it's interesting that there are Chinese parts.
CONAN: So the suggestion, and no more than a suggestion, is these people may have had help in designing and building the submarine.
Mr. POPKIN: There is that suggestion. But the intelligence officials I talked to for the article think that it's probably made by a Colombian drug cartel using mostly local help. Now, they do think that someone came in to guide them on the design and then, ultimately, would have guided them on the use of this. You know, maybe someone with actual submarine training, because it would have been very difficult to operate this safely. Not that they particularly care about the safety of the crew, but to go up and back many times, which is what this sub is designed to do, would have been difficult.
CONAN: And it isn't cheap.
Mr. POPKIN: It cost approximately four to five million dollars to build, and it's not the only out there.
CONAN: Well, the key part, though, is its cargo capacity, nine tons.
Mr. POPKIN: Exactly. So nine tons of cocaine, let's say, has a street value in the U.S. of close to a quarter billion dollars. And that's why the cartels are willing to spend a year, devote all this labor and take the risk of bringing in all the parts - we haven't talk - this area of northwest Ecuador by Colombia is incredibly remote. And they built this without the use of electricity, bringing the parts in essentially by canoe-like boats several at a time for over a year. And they built it from scratch right there in the jungle.
So they - the cartels are willing to spend that kind of time and money because at the end of the day, you can ship $250 million worth of cocaine up to, let's say, Mexico, for transport into the U.S.
CONAN: Why not directly into the U.S.?
Mr. POPKIN: There's no evidence that they've done that yet. And the whole apparatus is set up so that the cocaine is made in Colombia, it goes up the Pacific Coast, it's offloaded secretly and at night in Mexico, picked up by boats and then brought across in the traditional ways across the borders of Mexico.
The U.S. intelligence agencies are very worried that now, with this submarine, you could have incursions, if you will, to the U.S., maybe even to Europe or Africa, just given the range and the potential of these vessels. But at this point, they only have evidence of them going as far as Mexico.
CONAN: And you said there is more than one.
Mr. POPKIN: There is. Just this past February, the Colombians found a similar submarine - this was about 100 feet long but similar capabilities - in Colombia, not that far. This whole region is, you know, marshy, jungle area. It's not that far from where the Ecuadorians found this. But now there are two, and the belief is if there are two that our government and these foreign governments have found, there are very likely are others out there.
And this is how it's developed. With the semi-submersibles, they started very humbly and they really grew. They became very much more sophisticated over the years and the thought is the same thing is true of the submarines.
CONAN: There were some sense of vindication from some of the people in the DEA that you talked to, that their are reports of these submarines finally proved out to be true.
Mr. POPKIN: Yeah. Yeah. You can imagine the scuttlebutt and the talk about this. If you didn't really know that much about this area and you heard that a drug organization was building a submarine in a jungle, it just sounds ridiculous on its face because of the engineering feat that has to go into this.
So there was some, kind of, playful banter in the U.S. embassy in Bogota over this over the years. And when it was discovered, the DEA did feel a real sense of vindication.
CONAN: And then the question becomes, so what do we do about it? If there have been two found, you have to suspect that there are others operating, that there is probably something like a small fleet of these submarines.
Mr. POPKIN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And that's the - I guess, the concern is that it's almost like a little makeshift navy, if you will.
There are certain methods that U.S. and other foreign governments' intelligence agencies can take to try to detect them, using drones and sonar and radar. But in end of the day, I think, they acknowledge that they're going to have to continue to rely on good intelligence and that's what led to the capture of this sub.
There were a couple of tips that came in that got to the right people that enabled them to find the exact location. Because when they flew over this, and there's constantly plane traffic over these areas and satellite imagery, they saw nothing.
In fact, before the July 2nd successful raid, about a week prior to that, there was another raid. And they flew right over it and they right in the area, and they never saw a thing. It wasn't until they got boots on the ground and had very good intel about where to go that they stumbled upon some barrels in the jungle and then worked their way through and found this sub on its side.
CONAN: And as you said in your piece, they also found evidence of a camp for the workers who were assembling this vessel and that, what, breakfast was still warm.
Mr. POPKIN: Yeah, exactly. Everyone left when they heard this, essentially, this army coming in pretty loud. And they weren't able to arrest anyone directly connected, but they found evidence of at least 40 beds and, you know, quite a camp that was in operation.
CONAN: And how exactly do you assemble something like this without electricity?
Mr. POPKIN: Well, they think they probably had the use of some gas-fired generators. But, by and large, it was built by hand, kind of the old-fashion way, and done in place with some buildings right next to the estuaries there, which are tidal, so that obviously you don't want to build something that's too big and then have to try to move it. So it's - essentially, it's built in place, in sections, assembled and then it's ready to go.
CONAN: We're talking with Jim Popkin, a writer based here in Washington, D.C., who wrote an article for Wired magazine about the super sub that was found in the jungles of Ecuador ready to smuggle nine tons of cocaine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And anybody who's ever been to the Field Museum in Chicago knows there's a U-boat that was captured during the Second World War that resides in front. Where is this submarine today?
Mr. POPKIN: The sub is sitting now, it's propped up like a trophy, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in one of the main naval command centers there. And it's kind of protected, and it is treated almost like a trophy now because it was such an intelligence prize for the Ecuadorian navy.
CONAN: And is that where you got to see it?
Mr. POPKIN: It is. It is. I was allowed to go there and, I guess, the first journalist who saw it once it was taken out of the water and kind of cleaned up. And it was really exciting. I had read a lot about it and talked to a lot of investigators. But to stand next to it and see (unintelligible). It's almost twice as large as a city bus. It's just enormous and it was impressive to see.
CONAN: And, yes, sophisticated - some elements, though, the wheels, for example, a little primitive.
Mr. POPKIN: Yeah. It had this feel of like - reminded me of that movie "Brazil," it's a mixture of old and new at the same time. And you have an old go-kart steering wheels that help guide it, and yet you have this, you know, relatively sophisticated diesel/electric engine system. It has two screws, two propellers that drive it, and then this very modern Kevlar and carbon fiber exterior. So it really was a very clever mix of old and new.
CONAN: And as you, excuse me, the U-boat is at the Museum of Science and Industry, not at the Field Museum. I apologize for that. It was a long time since I saw that. There was a sideline in your article, the passionate devotees of submarines in this country who build some - amateurs on their own and were contemptuous of those earlier semi-submersibles, as you describe them, and took a look at the specs for this one and said, whoa.
Mr. POPKIN: Exactly. There's a group called PSUBS, and it stands for personal submarines. And it's a collection of about 250, mostly men, in the U.S. and all over the world, who build submarines of their own in their garages and on their driveways. And I thought it'd be important to go to them because you can talk to the Navy and naval experts, so they know about big professional, you know, rather more commercial construction of submarines.
I wanted to know how hard would it really be to do this, and what skills would it take. And as you say, Neal, they were quite contemptuous of the early versions, these semi-submersibles. But when they saw pictures and then I provided them with some of the details the Navy had provided, they were really, really impressed and thought that this was an incredible feat.
CONAN: Jim Popkin's article is in the current issue of Wired magazine. There's a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Now, thanks very much for coming in today.
Mr. POPKIN: Thank you so much.
CONAN: More in just a moment.