By Alexander Bühler
The boat was divided into three sections. A hatch in the bow led to the cargo hold, which was barely a meter (3 feet) high. The crew had to crawl through the cargo hold on hands and knees, passing the packages of drugs, to reach the control station and the sleeping berths. Alonso positioned himself at the wheel, next to a GPS device for navigation and a radio. The diesel tanks were underneath the berths. The engine room, containing two turbo diesel engines, was behind Alonso. There was no light, there were no toilets, and there was barely enough room to stand up or lie down to sleep.
At around 8 p.m., the tide was high and the night sufficiently dark as the ocean water tugged at the submersible. A speedboat pulled the vessel out to sea, where the crew started the engines. They accelerated to 12 knots and set off on a 270-degree course heading west, toward the open ocean. The guard provided by the drug mafia for each transport, armed with a revolver and an assault rifle, stood at the door to the engine room. It was incredibly hot in the submersible, where the engines remove oxygen from the air and enrich it with carbon monoxide, despite ventilation pipes. "You constantly feel like you're suffocating," says Alonso. "Every four hours, we reduced the speed from 12 to six knots. Then we opened the hatch in the front for exactly one minute, let some fresh air in and accelerated again."
The four-man team worked in shifts, while Alonso kept monitoring the route. Once they were in the open ocean, the man with the assault rifle gave him a piece of paper showing the target position. Their instructions were to arrive there on a specific day and at a specific time.
Each of the men tried to sleep after his shift, but the stench and the noise on board made this impossible. They had to drink copious amounts of water to make up for the buckets of sweat constantly running off their bodies. Their main source of nourishment was condensed milk, the Peruvian "Leche Gloria" brand. The stench from fecal matter, which couldn't be disposed of during the trip, soon became almost unbearable.
A Dangerous Mission
The Colombian drug mafia has had hundreds of similar boats built in the last few years. The police have only managed to capture 53 of them, 20 in the last year alone. The drug transport business is extremely lucrative. It costs about half a million dollars to build a submersible, but the market value of the cargo can be more than 100 times that. The drug smugglers often sink their boats once the delivery has been made. Dozens of the one-way vessels are believed to be lying on the sea floor off the Mexican coast.
Authorities are now imposing steep fines on anyone caught building or using the boats. If the coast guard also finds drugs on board, the smugglers can expect to spend eight to 14 years in prison. Nevertheless, it isn't difficult to find smugglers to work on the boats.
Those who do so are signing up for a dangerous mission. The tiniest design flaw can be deadly in a boat that spends much of its journey 1,500 kilometers away from the coast. If the thin hull breaks, it's all over, says Alonso. He has heard of several crews of drug couriers that drowned. "Even if you make it through the hatch to the surface, you're out in the middle of the ocean, without a life vest or a rescue boat."
Alonso's first trip in a submersible lasted 10 days, and he reached the destination without incident, slipping under the Colombian coast guard's radar and past its sonar. Alonso knew where to find the gaps in surveillance. They reached the destination off the Mexican coast, where they transmitted code words on a prearranged frequency. When the Mexican narcos' yacht arrived, the crew opened the hatch and jumped into the water to rid themselves of the stench of the last few days.
Huge Sums Involved
They spent four hours loading the cocaine packets, each weighing 20 to 40 kilograms, onto the other boat. In return, they received 20 packages of banknotes, for a total of $8 million in $20 bills, money they had to turn over to their Colombian bosses.
The normal rate for the voyage ranges between $30,000 and $100,000. Alonso was paid much less, because the drug gangs were still deducting his old debts. For him, the transports were never lucrative.
Money is what drives this business, a lot of money. A kilo of cocaine costs about $2,500 in Colombia, but in Europe it sells for $30,000. A few months ago, authorities found sums of $29 million and 17 million when they searched only one of the locations where the drug boss "El Loco" Barrera had been hiding his money.
An estimated 5 million Colombians are believed to be directly or indirectly involved in the drug trade. This is why the government is fighting on such a broad front against the FARC rebels, who are not just the government's political adversaries, but are also the country's biggest drug suppliers. The fight includes the use of police helicopters that burn down cocaine laboratories in the jungle, as well as aircraft that spray the herbicide glyphosate in blue clouds over the coca fields. With this method, the Colombians have already destroyed 7,500 hectares (18,525 acres) of coca fields in a FARC-controlled area since November 2009.
For years, the government has cooperated with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In return, the Americans have provided the country with billions in administrative and financial aid. Immense progress has been made in the fight against the drug trade in Colombia, says one high-ranking DEA official. In fact, he says, the Colombians have become so effective that the drug mafia will probably shift its production to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador soon. "The authorities in those countries don't have enough experience yet with the drug smugglers' methods, technical equipment and level of sophistication," the official says.
Taking It to the Next Level
A recent raid in neighboring Ecuador confirmed the official's predictions. In July, the Ecuadorian police found a real submarine near the Colombian border. It was 30 meters long, equipped with a periscope and electric motors and apparently capable of diving to a depth of 20 meters. Unlike the submersibles Alonso had used, this vessel was built by engineers and could only be piloted by experienced submarine captains. The estimated construction cost was $4 million.
He has lost everything, his entire existence, because of drug smuggling, Alonso says today. Now he survives on the pension of his 80-year-old father. The roof trusses in his house in Buenaventura are rotten and need to be replaced, but Alonso can't afford it. He is making nets now and wants to become a fisherman. It would be his third life, following his careers as a captain and then as an underwater drug courier.
He has no faith in the supposed successes of his country's anti-drug units. "As long as someone consumes it, there will be someone who produces cocaine, someone who transports it, and someone who sells it," he says. "And idiots like me, who are stupid enough to do this."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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