BAHÍA MÁLAGA, Colombia — For years, it was rumored that Colombian smugglers were transporting tons of cocaine aboard homemade submarines. But without hard evidence, the scuttlebutt sounded like a Jules Verne fantasy, a sort of Twenty-thousand kilos under the sea. As it turns out, narco U-boats are all too real. Ecuadorian police raided a clandestine jungle shipyard last year, just south of the Colombian border, and impounded a 74-foot-long submarine capable of carrying nine tons of cocaine to delivery points off the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America. Its hull was built of Kevlar and carbon-fiber. Its 249 lead-acid batteries could power the diesel engine for 18 hours before the sub would have to resurface. The Ecuadorian sub was no fluke. In February, Colombian authorities confiscated a second fully submersible drug submarine. This 70-foot-long vessel was spotted on an estuary to the Pacific and was about to make its maiden voyage. Nearby, troops found 2.9 tons of cocaine. “It was all ready to go,” says Colombian Navy Lt. Fernando Monroy, who piloted the drug sub from its hiding place to Bahía Málaga, the Navy’s main base on the Pacific. “Its tanks were filled with 1,700 gallons of diesel.” “Drug traffickers have now literally done what many people thought was unthinkable,” said Jay Berman, who heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Andean division. “They’ve invested enormous amounts of resources, money, manpower in acquiring the technology to build submarines.” He added: “Pictures do not do them justice. You have to see the subs to get a perspective of how large they are and how much effort it takes to build them.” With its sleek shape, rear fins, and conning tower, the Colombian drug sub looks like a conventional submarine though it’s far smaller than most military models. It’s also a hybrid of high- and low-technology. Rather than steel, the sub is built from wood, fiberglass and PVC tubing, materials that are all widely available and easily transportable to secret jungle dry docks. Yet it exhibits a level of sophistication new to maritime smuggling. It’s been equipped with day and night vision cameras. In the stern sits a 346-horsepower diesel engine. There are four bunk beds for the crew members, compressed air tanks, touch screen controls, a GPS and satellite telephones. Unlike the Ecuadorian sub which could move forward underwater, the Colombian model was built to travel just below the surface, then cut its engines and dive down 30 feet or so to hide from interdiction vessels. Submarines have been on the traffickers’ drawing board for years. Back in 2000, Colombian authorities stumbled upon a half-built, double-hulled submarine in a warehouse outside of Bogotá. The 78-foot vessel was designed to descend to depths of more than 300 feet. But in that case, drug mafia engineers may have bitten off more than they could chew. Over the next decade, they settled upon a less-sophisticated watercraft: the so-called semi-submersible. These are airtight boats that ply the ocean with just a navigational dome and air and exhaust pipes sticking out of the water at odd angles. They look like something Dr. Seuss might have drawn but the homemade vessels have been highly successful. Semi-subs are easy to build and, at $500,000, they’re relatively cheap. As a result, they are usually scuttled after just one mission because it’s more secure to sink the boats on the high seas than steer them back to Colombia. More importantly, their tiny wakes make them difficult to detect on radar. By some estimates, more than half of all the cocaine leaving Colombia’s Pacific coast in 2009 was shipped aboard semi-subs. The semi-submersible marked the triumph of stealth over speed. In the 1980s and ‘90s, traffickers often used go-fast boats that could travel up to 80 miles per hour and outrun most Coast Guard boats. But those crafts left huge wakes and anti-drug agents — using helicopters and their own racing boats — became more adept at spotting them and, in some cases, shooting out their engines. More recently, authorities have gotten better at picking up the radar signature of semi-subs. And a recent drop-off in captures may indicate that the drug traffickers are moving completely underwater. The number of impounded semi-subs dropped from 17 in 2009 to just one so far this year. And though no drug-laden submarines have been spotted in the ocean, they are very likely out there. If so, this technological leap presents vexing new challenges to law enforcement because submarines are invisible to radar. Hunting them requires sonar to identify their sounds or magnetic anomaly detectors, since conventional subs are basically huge masses of steel which can cause deviations in the Earth’s magnetic field. But the Pacific is vast and the two impounded drug subs are small, fiberglass vessels made with very little steel. Even if a suspected drug sub is located, practical and legal procedures for forcing it to the surface remain unclear. For drug traffickers, the submarines also mean more headaches. For one thing, they are more onerous and costly to build than semi-subs. The clandestine shipyard in Ecuador had space for 50 workers. Taking into account materials, labor and security fees, the submarine impounded in Ecuador may have cost upwards of $5 million. In addition, submarines are more difficult to operate than semi-subs. Any boat captain can drive a semi-sub but navigating a submarine, especially bringing one back up to the surface, requires a special skill set. One retired smuggler, who made three drug delivery trips to Mexico at the helm of semi-subs, said that clandestine sub pilots learn through computer simulators or by trial and error. Either way, the trips can be hellish. The smuggler, who spoke to Diálogo on condition of anonymity, described the drug runs up to Mexico as tense and claustrophobic. There was no toilet, so the air on board quickly filled with the vapors of excrement, cocaine and diesel fuel. They rarely stopped for breathers because stationary vessels are easier to spot. On board, an armed guard made sure there were no mutinies. Once back on the mainland, the smuggler said he stunk so badly that he spent the next two weeks bathing himself with a mix of Clorox and water. “It’s like being a kamikaze,” he said. “I sometimes wonder how I survived.” Still, he earned about $300,000 for each trip. Such eye-popping fees make it easy for traffickers to recruit sub captains and crew members among the impoverished fishermen of the Pacific coast. However, conditions aboard the drug subs aren’t much better. Monroy, the Navy officer who piloted the Colombian sub to Bahia Málaga, said the temperature inside rose to 100 degrees. But he predicted that drug sub builders would make the necessary adjustments, saying “we believe the smugglers will keep improving their technology, allowing them to make all their trips underwater.” By Dialogo April 21, 2011 It’s amazing that these “merchants” of drugs, having succeeded in developing this technology, taking into account how formidable a submarine is as a weapon of war, we would have to be prepared, for these organizations to successfully face a regular army. It would be much better to legalize drugs, then they would pay taxes and the government could exercise effective control, although it would be huge blow to the international financial system.