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Authorities in Awe of Drug Runners' Jungle-Built, Kevlar-Coated Supersubs | Magazine
Drug Subs 2.0 ? Coast Guard Compass
The clatter of helicopter blades echoed across the jungles of northwestern Ecuador. Antinarcotics commandos in three choppers peered at the mangroves below, scanning for any sign of activity. The police had received a tip that a gang of Colombian drug smugglers had set up a clandestine work site here, in a dense swamp 5 miles south of Colombia?s border. And whatever the traffickers were building, the tipster had warned, was truly enormous.
For decades, Colombian drug runners have pursued their trade with diabolical ingenuity, staying a step ahead of authorities by coming up with one innovation after another. When false-paneled pickups and tractor-trailers began drawing suspicion at US checkpoints, the cartels and their Mexican partners built air-conditioned tunnels under the border. When border agents started rounding up too many human mules, one group of Colombian smugglers surgically implanted heroin into purebred puppies. But the drug runners? most persistently effective method has also been one of the crudest?semisubmersible vessels that cruise or are towed just below the ocean?s surface and can hold a ton or more of cocaine.
Assembled in secret shipyards along the Pacific coast, they?ve been dubbed drug subs by the press, but they?re incapable of diving or maneuvering like real submarines. In fact, they?re often just cigarette boats encased in wood and fiberglass that are scuttled after a single mission. Yet despite their limitations, these semisubmersibles are notoriously difficult to track. US and Colombian officials estimate that the cartels have used them to ship hundreds of tons of cocaine from Colombia over the past five years alone.
But several years ago, intelligence agencies began hearing that the cartels had made a technological breakthrough: They were constructing some kind of supersub in the jungle. According to the persistent rumors, the phantom vessel was an honest-to-goodness, fully functioning submarine with vastly improved range?nothing like the disposable water coffins the Colombians had been using since the ?90s. US law enforcement officials began to think of it as a sort of Loch Ness Monster, says one agent: ?Never seen one before, never seized one before. But we knew it was out there.?
Finally, the Ecuadoreans had enough information to launch a full-fledged raid. On July 2, 2010, a search party?including those three police helicopters, an armada of Ecuadorean navy patrol boats, and 150 well-armed police and sailors?scoured the coastline near the Colombian border. When a patrol boat happened on some abandoned barrels in a clearing off the R?o Molina, the posse moved in to find an astillero, or jungle shipyard, complete with spacious workshops, kitchens, and sleeping quarters for 40. The raid had clearly interrupted the workday?rice pots from breakfast were still on the stove.
And there was something else hastily abandoned in a narrow estuary: a 74-foot camouflaged submarine?nearly twice as long as a city bus?with twin propellers and a 5-foot conning tower, beached on its side at low tide. ?It was incredible to find a submarine like that,? says rear admiral Carlos Albuja, who oversees Ecuadorean naval operations along the northwest coast. ?I?m not sure who built it, but they knew what they were doing.?
?This is a quantum leap in technology,? Bergman says over a breakfast of eggs and strong Colombian coffee at a Bogot? hotel. ?It poses some formidable challenges.?
The US government?s first step was a stern-to-snorkel assessment. Agents from the Farragut Technical Analysis Center?a branch of the US Office of Naval Intelligence that helps the Pentagon assess the capabilities of North Korean battleships and Russian nuclear subs?went down to Ecuador. Over two days, the team broke down every aspect of the vessel?s construction. They examined the hull with an electron microscope and energy-dispersive x-ray to determine its composition. They pored over the technical capabilities of the sub?s Chinese engines to calculate its range. And they studied the maximum amount of breathing time the crew would have underwater, without the aid of CO2 scrubbers, before they?d be forced to surface.
The group summed up its findings in a 70-page white paper?marked FOUO, for official use only?that conveys a grudging respect for the engineers and craftsmen who were able to build something so seaworthy in the middle of a swamp. ?The streamlined hull, diesel-electric propulsion system, and fuel ballast system design all show a significant level of technical expertise and knowledge of submersible operations,? it states. The hull, they discovered, was made from a costly and exotic mixture of Kevlar and carbon fiber, tough enough to withstand modest ocean pressures but difficult to trace at sea. Like a classic German U-boat, the drug-running submarine uses diesel engines on the surface and battery-powered electric motors when submerged. With a crew of four to six, it has a maximum operational range of 6,800 nautical miles on the surface and can go 10 days without refueling. Packed with 249 lead-acid batteries, the behemoth can also travel silently underwater for up to 18 hours before recharging.
The most valuable feature, though, is the cargo bay, capable of holding up to 9 tons of cocaine?a street value of about $250 million. The vessel ferries that precious payload using a GPS chart plotter with side-scan capabilities and a high-frequency radio?essential gadgetry to ensure on-time deliveries. There?s also an electro-optical periscope and an infrared camera mounted on the conning tower?visual aids that supplement two miniature windows in the makeshift cockpit.
In 2009 alone, the Coast Guard, working with other federal law enforcement agencies like DEA and CBP, seized 11 drug subs (of the semi-submersible variety) and interdicted more than 64 metric tons of cocaine in the process. That success was the subject of a Coast Guard Compass blog post and National Geographic Channel special back in January.
Just imagine 8 tons of explosive sailing into New York Harbor.
This submarine, seized by Ecuadorean soldiers near the Colombian border, is believed to be capable of long-range underwater voyages to transport narcotics to the United States
DEA, Major Operations Photos
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