By Alexander Bühler
The day Gustavo Alonso's life as a drug courier ended began with the muffled roar of a helicopter. It was flying directly overhead, and Alonso could hear it approaching rapidly. Suddenly the helicopter came to a stop and began hovering in the air above.
Alonso, three other crew members and a guard from the Colombian drug mafia were crammed together in a space of about 15 square meters (161 square feet) in the hold of a semi-submersible 600 nautical miles off the Mexican coast. The vessel was also carrying 3.5 tons of cocaine, with a wholesale price of about $8 million (6.1 million), worth more than $60 million on the streets of Miami or Washington.
The Mexican contacts who were supposed to take delivery of the cocaine were already four days late. They had reported that their ship was having engine problems. The crew had already been traveling for 12 days in the small submarine, with barely enough space to stand up or walk around. Waves constantly washed over the glass dome which provided their only visual contact with the outside world. The men had to continually squeeze past each other and spent most of their time playing cards or dozing.
At about 10 a.m., they suddenly heard a muffled bang. The helicopter gunner had shot a steel net at the vessel. It wrapped itself around the propellers and prevented the submersible from moving forward.
They heard someone talking through a megaphone. They knew that heavy weapons were pointed at them and that they didn't stand a chance. They shut off the engines, went outside and surrendered to the US Coast Guard.
Escaping the Narcos
"At first I wanted to kill myself," says Alonso, "but then I realized that now I could finally escape the narcos, the drug dealers." If he were in a US prison, they would no longer have any power over him and wouldn't be able to pick him up for the next transport, as they had been doing for years.
Alonso was convicted of drug trafficking and spent years in prison, the first two of them in solitary confinement. He returned to his hometown after his release, but he has since left his old life behind. The people with whom he used to interact in the drug trade are now either dead or behind bars.
Alonso, 53, a short, stocky man, is standing on the terrace of the Hotel Estación in the Colombian port city of Buenaventura. He is looking out at the bay in front of him, a labyrinth of islands, twisted mangrove forests and estuaries.
Alonso isn't his real name. The drug mafia doesn't like it when former employees start talking. And here in Buenaventura, the hub for drug dealers on the Pacific coast, talking is especially dangerous. For years, drug gangs like the Rastrojos and the Aguilas Negras have been waging a war in the city for control of the transport routes.
The drug gangs do their recruiting in the poor neighborhoods of Buenaventura, where people live in shabby wooden huts. In those neighborhoods, there is little work and only sporadic electricity and running water. The drug mafia controls such areas and finds its foot soldiers there.
A woman was murdered there a few weeks ago, and two others disappeared without a trace -- an act of revenge committed by the narcos after a botched transport. The crew of a smuggling boat had thrown some of its cargo overboard while fleeing from the coast guard. A few days later, the police proudly displayed the confiscated cargo. For the narcos, the incident was an act of betrayal, which has to be followed by retaliation.
Unable to Say No
There are two ways to get into the drug trade, Alfonso explains. Some do it to make fast money, the coup of a lifetime, enough money to pay for a house or the children's education. Others do it because they are blackmailed after previously receiving help from the drug mafia, as in Alonso's case.
Alonso, a licensed sea captain, worked for years on large fishing ships before piloting the cocaine boats through the ocean. He was living in Buenaventura with his wife and their three daughters when his wife got seriously ill. "The doctors said that she urgently needed surgery, but the operation was going to cost $40,000 (30,500)," he recalls.
He didn't have the money. He says that an acquaintance assured him that everything would be taken care of and that he had nothing to worry about. After the operation, the supposed friend approached Alonso and asked him for a favor in return. Alonso agreed to help the man, even though he sensed what the request would be. Could he have said no? "If I had, I wouldn't be standing here today," he says.
He began a two-year career as a drug smuggler, during which he completed a total of four trips. He made the first trip in a cutter provided by the drug dealers, with five tons of cocaine hidden under a load of fish. Alonso, a well-known captain, made his way past the coast guard without incident. He turned over the drugs at an arranged meeting point off the Mexican coast and returned home.
Picked Up at Night
He still hoped that the narcos would leave him alone. But they were already waiting for him when he arrived in the harbor. "They never leave you alone, unless the police get you or you're killed during a transport." They pressed some money into his hands and took him home. Then they told him to wait for the next mission, and not to leave the house. For weeks, he was afraid to go outside.
He felt almost relieved when he was picked up one night. At dawn, after traveling for several hours by car and motorboat, the group reached its destination: an island in the coastal mangrove thicket. From the boat, Alonso could see one of the shipyards people had always gossiped about in Buenaventura, where submersibles are built out of fiberglass in the jungle, out in the open, to be used for transporting cocaine.
The narcos had developed a reliable system. The boats are almost invisible from the water, and they don't appear on radar. The only way to reliably locate the vessels is through thermal imaging performed by air surveillance crews. But the drug gangs quickly found a way to overcome this problem. They attached thick pipes to the hulls of the submersibles, allowing exhaust gases to be fed into the water, which cools the gases. A third of the cocaine bound for the US market is now transported with submersibles.
"I was afraid when they showed me the boat," says Alonso. He knew his way around ships. On a ship, you could always go on deck and look at the sea. But now he was looking at a tiny, fragile submersible, and he could see how tight it would be inside. Ten tons of fuel, canned food and water in canisters were already stored in the hull -- and three-and-a-half tons of pure cocaine. The entire crew was ordered to get on board at nightfall.
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