Drug traffickers are spending $1 million a pop to build boats that look like submarines and can carry 4 tons of cocaine for 2,000 miles without refueling.
Nicknamed narco subs, they're made to sneak loads up from South America to Mexico, where the drugs are offloaded and taken overland into the United States.
It is a semi-submersible coffin, said Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the Drug Enforcement Administration. You batten down the hatches and you are doing everything to not be detected sailing in the middle of the ocean.
At least 13 of the craft have been stopped and their crews prosecuted in U.S. courts since October 2008, according to the Justice Department. The first was intercepted in 2006.
The use of narco subs underscores how drug cartels have sought to go over, under or around borders, and have prompted worries that the craft could be used to smuggle weapons or people.
The latest craft was captured last month when a Houston Chronicle journalist was aboard a Customs and Border Protection plane flying from Corpus Christi.
The P-3 turboprop was 500 miles off Colombia's coast, coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dallas.
This will go down quickly, advised a helicopter shadowing two speedboats.
Flanked by armed Coast Guard boarding teams, three underwear-clad traffickers waved a white flag, climbed out of a hatch and into the American justice system.
The boat carried more than 2 tons of cocaine, but most carry 4 to 8 tons, law enforcement official say.
About 3,000 pounds was offloaded by the Coast Guard before the narco sub lost stability and sank, according to court papers filed in Florida.
Most of the vessels are enclosed, usually a bit longer than school buses, and painted blue to blend in with the ocean. While they don't submerge, they do ride low enough in the water to be tough to spot with radar or heat-seeking cameras.
No names, no flags
The narco subs, each of which can cost $750,000 to over $1 million to make, don't have names, don't fly flags and would be an intimidating sight for civilians.
They are tough on crews.
Most of the interior, which can be sweltering under the merciless ocean sun, is for diesel and cargo. Journeys can typically last a week.
They aim for clandestine drop-off points along the Mexican or Central American coastline, or rendezvous with motherships at sea.
Narco subs have global positioning systems, radios and satellite phones. Crews are paid up to $25,000 apiece for a successful delivery.
They know they are playing a fatal game of cat and mouse, the DEA's Bergman said of the crews. They come from a lineage, a maritime lineage. They are used to the sea. They are willing to take that next risk.
Other uses feared
Authorities had heard rumors about narco subs for years, but considered them a Big Foot-type legend.
That changed in 2001, when one was discovered in a Bogota warehouse. It wasn't until 2006 that the first was captured in action.
In December 2008, the U.S. government began prosecuting traffickers caught aboard the craft, even if no drugs are found.
If capture is imminent, crews will open valves to flood the craft with water and scuttle it. Then they jump overboard and let the evidence sink to the ocean floor.
If we see you on it and we can prove you were on it, that is all we need, said Richard Booth, vice director a of a federal intelligence center that coordinates the air-sea hunt.
Those vessels are made to do nothing but smuggle drugs — they are not pleasure ships, they are not cargo ships, Booth said.
Some veteran narco sub hunters said they fear the craft could be used to move more than drugs, possibly weapons or even people.
It is a pretty bold act, certainly demonstrates the lengths to which drug trafficking organizations will go to get their product to market, said Coast Guard Capt. Michael Giglio. It certainly has our attention.
Courageous, but criminal
Crews that disappear are the stuff of lore. Were they hijacked and killed by rivals? Did they fall victim to a mechanical problem, a storm or a leak? Could they have stolen the multimillion-dollar cargo?
No one knows how many crews have perished, the DEA's Bergman said.
Nobody is saying these guys aren't courageous.
They are courageous, he said. A little bit of courage; little bit of stupidity; little bit of desperation; a lot of criminality - interesting mix.
A U.S. Coast Guard cutter, guided by aircraft from
Customs and Border Protection,
captured this so-called narco sub -
packed with cocaine - off the coast of Colombia last month.
Typical load: 4 to 8 tons of cocaine
Travel range: 2,000 miles without refueling
At controls: A captain, plus a crew of three
Navigation: GPS and satellite phones
Construction: Made of fiberglass and painted blue to blend with the sea
By DANE SCHILLER
June 26, 2010