Narco navy

  • Illustration by Gabriel Silveira
  • Image credit: Getty Images
Date:1 November 2010 Tags:, , ,

In the late 1990s, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents debated the existence of craft they called Bigfoots, semi-submersible cocaine-smuggling boats that ride low in the water to avoid detection. These days, law enforcement officials know these custom-built vessels exist – 45 have been seized in the past three years alone – but no one in the DEA had seen anything like the craft discovered this year hidden in a jungle in Ecuador, near the Colombian border. Following intelligence leads, DEA agents and local police found a homebuilt submarine, the first proof that cartels are fielding fully functional submarines to haul drugs. The diesel–electric sub has engine snorkels, electronics, a ballast system, a periscope and air conditioning, all of which speaks to a sophisticated manufacturer. “It looks like they built secondary and tertiary systems,” says DEA Andean regional director Jay Bergman. A semisubmersible can cost up to R7 million to build, but hauls enough profit-able cargo (between 2 and 6 tons of cocaine) that smugglers will discard it after a oneway trip and return home on commercial airlines, Bergman says. Now, DEA agents wonder if more advanced subs are making repeat journeys – literally under the radar. “If it’s the first, it won’t be the last,” Bergman says. “In the maritime domain, there’s nowhere else to go.”

By Brian Thevenot

Law Enforcement
National Guard

In August, the US government sent 1 200 guardsmen to the southern border. Governors can deploy the National Guard as well.
Tools: Night-vision binoculars, Humvee

US Coast Guard Cutter
High endurance cutters patrol the Pacific to spot and intercept illegal contra-band heading toward the United States.
Tools: Over-the-horizon boat, helicopter, 76-mm deck gun

Human Intelligence
The Colombian, Ecuadorean and US governments share informant tips on when and how cartels will ship drugs.
Tools: Money, electronic surveillance

The Target
Drug subs are believed to navigate from South America to Mexico, where narcotics are off-loaded and smuggled into the United States by land, hidden in vehicles.

Cartel drug sub
Ecuador, July 2010
Capacity: 10 tons of cocaine
Ssubmerged depth: 20 metres
Estimated cost: R35 million

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