It was only a small wave, far out at sea, but something about it was different from an ordinary one -- different enough to catch the attention of the crew of a US Navy patrol plane. Soon they recognized a small black submarine, the craft that was producing the wave.
A dramatic chase began on March 1 some 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) west of the Colombian coast, north of the Galapagos Islands. A frigate caught sight of the roughly 20-meter (66-foot) submarine, and then soldiers jumped into a high-speed inflatable boat and began pursuing the vessel. They managed to come within a few meters and tried to stop the craft. But then four men squeezed out of the submarine through a hatch and dove into the water. The boat sank into the depths.
The investigators were on the right track. They had found a group of drug smugglers. But then they were forced to look on as the boat, containing an estimated four tons of cocaine in its hold, sank to the floor of the Pacific. At the last minute, the men had opened the seacocks and flooded the vessel.
Small, homemade submarines have become the preferred means of transport for the Colombian drug cartels -- and a completely new challenge for the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS), a group consisting of members of the United States Navy, Coast Guard, CIA and drug control agents from 12 other countries.
The boats, made of plastic or steel, can carry up to 10 tons of cocaine each. Because they cannot submerge completely, the correct term for the boats is semi-submersibles. They are used primarily on the drug trafficking routes between Colombia and Guatemala or Mexico. The cartels have devised a complete logistics system, with fishing boats stationed along the way to warn the crews against patrols and provide them with food and water.
A Serious Threat
The drug boats have to be piloted almost blindly. They sit low in the water, and the crews rely on a type of GPS system used by yachts for navigation. The smugglers spend up to two weeks at sea. They move slowly during the day to avoid creating the telltale wake. But under cover of darkness, they crawl northward at six knots. In 2006, the vessels are believed to have carried between 500 and 700 tons of cocaine from South America toward the United States. About two-thirds of the drugs reached the United States along a western route in the Pacific, while the rest passed through the Caribbean. The number of submersibles is on the rise.
The drug cartels' new mode of transport is a serious threat, says Rear Admiral Joseph Nimmich ( read the full interview with Nimmich here), the director of the JIATFS, which is headquartered in Key West at the southern tip of Florida. Even senior US military officials are concerned. "The crooks are faster than we are," admits Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Putting a stop to this new threat is a central objective of the Armed Forces, and they are working hard at it."
The tough battle between drug cartels and investigators has always been a race to acquire the most effective technical innovations. In the past, the Colombians used small aircraft, but drug agents soon managed to gain the upper hand. Fishing trawlers were the next vessels of choice, but today these cutters are required to be outfitted with homing devices so that their locations can be carefully monitored. Finally, the cartels began using speedboats that were often fast enough to escape during chases. The Navy's response was to use helicopters to fire at the speedboats' engines. So now the traffickers are using submarines.
"We captured and seized the first one in November 2006," says Nimmich. The submarine is now sitting in front of the JIATFS command center. It's the only one so far that the Americans have managed to capture and bring on land. In 2007, officials learned that there were already 40 of the boats. Four were captured at sea, but were promptly sunk by their crews.
"The Cartels Are Always One Step Ahead"
To confront the problem more effectively, Nimmich plans to install better equipment in his own ships and track down the boats while they are being built. Most are assembled in remote locations in the Colombian jungle. "Our search is focused on three or four areas near complex river systems," says Nimmich. But the cartels are always one step ahead. When the Colombian government developed a control system to monitor the deliveries of new diesel engines used in ships, the submarine builders responded by using engines taken from old ships.
Colombian authorities have found seven of the secret shipyards since 2007. In each shipyard, 15 workers spent up to a year building a single boat. They built the hulls and then installed the engines and propellers. A boat agents managed to seize last summer before it was sunk measured 17 meters (56 feet) long and weighed 46 tons. There were 10 tons of cocaine in the vessel's hold.
The semi-submersibles are already in their third generation. The new boats have larger diesel tanks, giving them a range of about 5,000 kilometers (3,105 miles), and they feature the latest in navigation equipment. Fishermen hired specifically for the task are often at the controls, and those who complete the trip successfully are paid more than $100,000 (€64,000).
Once the smugglers have unloaded their cargo, somewhere off the coast of Guatemala or Mexico, they sink the boat. The homemade vessels, which come at a price tag of up to $1 million (€640,000), are disposable products. "If this continues, we'll see the submarines traveling from eastern Brazil to West Africa, a distance of more than 3,000 kilometers (1,863 miles)," says Rear Admiral Nimmich. From there, he says, it's only a stone's throw to the heart of Europe.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.