Drug Smugglers Turning To Homemade Submarines Homemade submarines, dubbed "semi-subs" have become more than just a nuisance in the international drug trade.

Drug Smugglers Turning To Homemade Submarines

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/103490776/103490759" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A U.S. Coast Guard cutter off Costa Rica saw a strange disturbance just below the ocean's surface in 2006: three snorkels poking out of the water and no divers flag. As they got closer, the disturbance was revealed to be a homemade submarine. It had been made in the jungles of Colombia and was carrying three tons of cocaine toward the United States.

These homemade submarines have been dubbed semi-subs and they've become more than just a nuisance in the international drug trade. David Kushner wrote an article about the semi-subs titled "The Drug Subculture." It appears in the New York Times Sunday magazine tomorrow.

David Kushner joins us from member station KPPS in San Diego. Mr. Kushner, thanks for being with us.

Mr. DAVID KUSHNER (Writer): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So, they called this first one Bigfoot. Describe these crafts for us, please.

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, they vary. These homemade, semi-submersible vessels, they're made from old fishing vessel parts. They're fiberglass and wood, and they carry up to about seven tons of cocaine in them.

SIMON: Now, were they made expressly for this purpose?

Mr. KUSHNER: They were. You know, they're being used now to carry about 30 percent of Colombia's total cocaine export. But the bigger issue is also the potential for carrying, you know, WMDs or anything you can really fit in there.

SIMON: Who's making the boats and who's piloting them?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, they're being made, you know, the cartels are basically running the operation and it's really an incredible feat. Because as you consider the fact that these are being made in a jungle, they're working with generators, and yet they're turning these things around in about 90 days. I mean, they can make them for about a half a million dollars.

The crew consists of about four people, and essentially they're just plucked off a dock. They can make maybe about $3,000 if they successfully complete a trip. And then they're just sent on their way.

SIMON: Mr. Kushner, you know, I've talked to a lot of naval officers over the years who like to boast that modern day surveillance can - and this is often the metaphor they use - can detect a whale breaking wind. So, if they can do that why can't they find one of these mini-subs?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, the fact is, is that they're not having an easy time detecting these semi-subs, and it's for a few reasons. I mean, one is that they're painted in such a way, you know, in a grayish-blue way, they're almost impossible to spot by eye. Because they're primarily fiberglass and wood, they're not easily detected by radar. And there's constantly modifications being made that make them even more difficult to detect.

SIMON: So, if they cost about half a million dollars to build - forgive me for not knowing - but how much money can they make out of just one shipment of cocaine?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, I mean, a couple of the ones that were caught had upwards of about $200 million worth of cocaine in them. So, you know, it's a relatively small investment. And what's interesting also is that these are disposable vessels. So, once they complete a trip, they're actually sunk because it's the cheapest, kind of most discreet way of dealing with them.

SIMON: I understand that there have been new laws passed that would try to cover these semi-subs.

Mr. KUSHNER: Exactly. What was happening prior to this is that they had to have evidence. They had to not only get the semi-subs, they had to get the cocaine off of the boats too. And that wasn't easy because the crews would jump off the boat, they would go into a raft, they would have to be saved, the ship would go down with the coke. And it was really essentially nothing we could do, except for giving these guys a lift back home.

So, back in October, there was a law passed, which makes it illegal just be on a semi-sub.

SIMON: And what's the Colombian government doing about it?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, they're taking steps as well actually. They're trying to get a similar law on the books there. It was interesting, because I spoke with Colombia's defense minister, who was talking about the country looking into banning certain plastics, you know, that are being used in these semi-subs. He said to me that he has to be as audacious as the smugglers are.

SIMON: Mr. Kushner, I think as you made plain at the top, the danger is not only drug trafficking but something more.

Mr. KUSHNER: Absolutely, yeah. There's no evidence of these boats coming to the shores of the United States, just to be clear about it. But this is not just isolated to this region. In fact, in January, a Sri Lankan army task force found three semi-subs that were being built in the jungles out there. And they basically said this is the first terrorist organization to develop underwater weapons.

This just gives you an indication of where the thinking is going about these kinds of boats.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Kushner, thanks so much.

Mr. KUSHNER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: David Kushner. He's the author of "Levittown" and contributing editor for Rolling Stone and Wired. His article on semi-subs appears in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.