BUENAVENTURA, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombians who thought they had seen everything in the war on drugs were treated to something new this year: cocaine smuggling in a submarine.
In images shown on national television, several men emerged from the makeshift fiberglass craft, opened hatches designed to let in water and sent the submarine and its cargo of cocaine to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Even though the they had traces of the drug on their clothing, the smugglers were rescued from their lifeboat and, in the absence of further evidence, released without charge.
“We kept the cargo from being distributed in the international market, which is our main goal,” said Navy Capt. Gustavo Angel, who estimated the contents at about 10 tonnes (tons). “So it was a partial success.”
As the authorities step up efforts to stop airplanes and speedboats long used to export drugs from the world’s biggest cocaine producing country, traffickers are turning to vessels that travel under water to carry on their trade.
From his base near the Pacific port city of Buenaventura Angel is helping lead the crackdown on the blimp-shaped vessels.
With only breathing tubes and mini navigation equipment above the surface, they leave almost no wake, making them hard to spot from the air. They can sometimes be spied by coast guard patrols and their sound can be picked up by Navy submarines equipped with sonar.
Angel estimates that more than 30 tonnes of cocaine have been intentionally sent to the bottom of the ocean by fleeing crew members over the last two and a half years, which makes authorities wonder how much is getting through to the U.S. market.
The diesel-fueled craft are used mostly on the Pacific coast to take drugs to Central America and Mexico for eventual sale in the United States.
The Navy estimates the boats travel up to two weeks to get to their destinations. They can transport up to 10 tonnes of cocaine on each voyage, after which they are scuttled to avoid questions.
Each costs about $600,000 to make, carries four to five crew members and is outfitted with one or two propellers, allowing it to travel at 10 to 12 knots, the Navy says.
Most are more than 50 feet long and built by drug smuggling groups sometimes in collusion with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which funds its four-decade-old Marxist insurgency with the drug trade.
Colombia exports 600 tonnes of cocaine per year, according to United Nations monitors, about a third of it from the Pacific coast.
Vice Admiral Edgar Cely worries that the FARC could use the craft to transport arms and explosives in an attack on a port. “Anything could be aboard those things,” Cely told Reuters in his office at the Defense Ministry in Bogota.
The craft are constructed inland on ramps to keep them off the wet ground of the mangroves that line the Pacific coast. Overhead vegetation hides the construction sites from the air.
Painted blue to blend in with the water, they are loaded with their illegal cargo and taken by river at high tide to the ocean.
It is much more difficult to build and hide them on the heavily populated Caribbean coast, which is benefiting from a tourism boom under U.S.-backed security policies that have made many parts of Colombia safer.
Eight were found on the Pacific coast last year and one on the Caribbean, the Navy says, their hulls fitted with lead panels or water tanks to submerge them.
Authorities say they are bracing for the day when smugglers figure out how to make full-fledged submarines capable of diving deep and navigating even more quietly than the current generation, which known locally as “semi-submersibles.”
Meanwhile, Cely said he is increasing land patrols along the coast to find the vessels where they are most likely to be detected, on their construction ramps.
“They are evolving quickly in terms of technology. They are getting bigger, faster and are outfitted with GPS navigation systems and satellite telephones,” Cely said.
“We really have to stay on top of this.”
Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Eddie Evans