In recent years, the boat of choice for Colombian cocaine smugglers has been the semisubmersible, a vessel that cruises just below the ocean's surface with only its air and exhaust pipes sticking out of the water. Since the semisubs have proved so successful at dodging interdiction, it seemed inevitable that traffickers who in the past have commandeered entire passenger jets to move their product would upgrade to even more elusive full-fledged submarines. But narco U-boats were a murky legend of the depths, the drug-cartel version of the Loch Ness monster.
Not anymore. In February, at a clandestine shipyard near Colombia's Pacific coast, the military impounded a homemade submarine 70 ft. (21 m) long with three tons of cocaine nearby, ready to be loaded into a storage compartment that can hold eight tons. That discovery came seven months after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) helped capture a 100-ft.-long (30 m) diesel-powered sub along a river tributary to the Pacific south of the Colombian border in Ecuador. It was about to make its maiden voyage, and though no drugs were found aboard, officials say they're certain it was a narcosub. Both busts make fairly plain that Colombian traffickers have now taken "a quantum leap in technology," says Jay Bergman, who heads the DEA's Andean division. "It's the difference between building a motor-scooter and building a car."
The subs are also a testament to the ingenuity of traffickers working at secluded dry docks deep inside the equatorial jungle. "Pictures do not do them justice," says Bergman. "You have to see the subs to get a perspective of how large they are and how much effort it takes to build them." The 70-footer captured in February, for example, is a fascinating hybrid of high and low technology. It sports a large conning tower (the platform atop a sub) with night-vision cameras. The stern holds a 346-horsepower diesel engine and tanks that can hold 1,700 gallons of fuel enough for the two-week run to cocaine drop-off points near Mexico and Central America. Inside are compressed-air tanks for ballast, bunk beds, GPS equipment and touchscreen controls. It can cut its engine and dive down some 30 ft. (9 m) to hide from interdiction boats and aircraft.
Yet the sub is just as clearly artisanal. Its hull and tubing were fashioned from materials you can buy at Home Depot: fiberglass, wood and polyvinyl chloride. Colombian navy Lieutenant Fernando Monroy, a submariner who piloted the confiscated drug sub to the Pacific coast navy base at Bahia Malaga, says poor ventilation pushed up the temperature inside to 100°F (38°C), making it hard to breathe.
In fact, one retired Colombian trafficker, who made three runs to Mexico at the helm of semisubs, described the conditions as "hellish," with the crew subsisting on crackers, canned beans and milk. There was no toilet; the smell of excrement, cocaine and diesel fuel was overwhelming yet they rarely stopped because it's easier to detect stationary vessels. "Our orders were to keep moving," the trafficker, who asked not to be identified, told TIME. "There's always an armed person on board to keep watch over the crew and the cargo. If anyone starts to panic or mutiny, his orders are to eliminate the troublemaker."
Monroy and other officials predict the drug mafias will make the necessary adjustments they always do to improve comfort, stealth, range and payload. Indeed, the advances in maritime smuggling are evident in Bahia Malaga, where impounded vessels have been lined up like museum pieces. They include go-fast boats that can travel 80 m.p.h. (130 km/h) and most outrun U.S. Coast Guard vessels (though not helicopter-borne snipers, who track the boats' huge wakes and then move in to shoot out their engines). There is also a collection of semisubs, adopted after the Miami Vice era of the 1980s and '90s as traffickers opted for stealth over speed. Semisubs leave tiny wakes, making them harder to detect on radar. They're also relatively cheap to build and are scuttled after drug deliveries. Experts estimate that 70% of the cocaine leaving Colombia's Pacific coast in 2009 was packed aboard semisubs.
Colombian and U.S. antidrug agents have gotten better at spotting the radar signature of semisubs and have captured dozens of them. But seizures have dropped dramatically over the past two years from 17 in 2009 to six last year and just one so far this year raising speculation that the smugglers have moved completely underwater. So far, no subs have actually been located beneath the surface; but Bergman points out that's not necessarily good news. "When analysts looking at emerging threats see this precipitous drop in semisubmersibles and then the advent of these two [seized] submarines, there's a concern that's raised," he says. "What are we missing?"
The answer could very well be Mucho. Submarines are invisible to radar, so hunting them requires sonar to identify their underwater sounds or magnetic anomaly detectors, since conventional subs are basically huge masses of steel that can cause deviations in the earth's magnetic fields. But the Pacific is vast and the two impounded drug subs are small and fiberglass, and contain relatively little steel. And even if a suspected drug sub is located, says Bergman, the practical and legal procedures for forcing it to the surface remain unclear.
One approach is to follow Colombia's fumigation program, which sends fleets of crop dusters to destroy coca bushes before their green leaves can be turned into cocaine. Similarly, U.S. and Colombian agents are trying to infiltrate drug organizations and scour the Pacific estuaries, tributaries and mangrove swamps to detect and destroy subs before they launch. But if the aerial coca-eradication program is any indication (Colombia is still covered with thousands of acres of coca after 15 years of heavy spraying) eliminating the drug subs could be a long, frustrating slog.