Life On A Drug Smuggling Submarine - High Times - Spring  2013

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 Illegal drugs and their transportation are constantly evolving.

Cocaine and weed shipments have been arriving in the US from Central America via a spectrum of means, seagoing craft being one of the most popular.

First there were fishing boats, then go-fasts (speed boats mounted with multiple engines). As these succumbed easily to detection, drug cartels then developed the semisubmersible or "narco sub"; these are now making way for fully submersible submarines.
 
In 2010 Ecuadorian authorities lay claim to having captured an authentic submarine designed to smuggle drugs. "It is the first fully functional, completely submersible submarine for transoceanic voyages that we have ever found," Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) then told AP.
 
Reports claim the sub captured was 33m long, could accommodate a crew of five or six, and was equipped with twin screw diesel-electric propulsion, a periscope, and "air conditioning". The DEA said It could have carried up to 10 tons of cargo.
 
The sub was found at a secret jungle "shipyard" facility on an Ecuadorian river not far from the Colombian border. The shipyard had accommodation for over fifty people, yet only one was found by the Ecuadorian police and troops acting on a DEA tip.
 
Cartels and drug runners are now shelling out millions of dollars to construct these complex machines, recruiting highly skilled engineers who are usually ex-military personnel. Still, their exorbitant price and lengthy construction time remain an issue.
 
While daring and ingenuity suggest legitimate submarines are out there, the good old semisubmersible still dominates. Costing less than half of a real sub, a semisubmersible can be abandoned and sunk with ease if caught .
 
In use since the late 1990's the narcosub, a first generation semi submersible was simply a boat with an all-enclosing cap on top. Fitted with diesel engines, the fibreglass subs can smuggle several tons of Cocaine. They are able to evade capture and avoid radar detection because only a small part of the structure rides above the surface.
 
Assorted DEA generated reports focused on the central American region claim that Colombian drug cartels have about forty of the subs, while Mexican cartels have even more. These consist of both old school semi-submersibles and super expensive submarines

Semi-submersibles are typically propelled by ordinary marine engines, and float almost entirely under the surface. Air intakes and periscopes fitted with simple cameras and screened for below deck navigation are the only parts of the structure exposed above the waterline.

The custom-built subs do not fully submerge but are so low to the water they avoid radar. Aerial surveillance at sea is generally the only means to detect them.
 
Usually made of fiberglass, and powered by a 300/350 hp diesel engine, today's narcosubs are often manned by a crew of four. The average 60 feet (18 m) long narco-submarine can carry up to ten tons of cocaine. 
 
Moving at about 11 miles per hour (18 km/h) fuel tanks give them a range of 2,000 miles (3,200 km) they are also kitted with satellite navigation systems. 

So what's it like to risk your life to man a crew on a narcosub? High Times interviewed three members of a Columbian based gang who send subs on a weekly basis to various spots on central America.
 
The idea that there are smugglers out there navigating radar-eluding submarines full of contraband might lend one to believe that the drug trade has entered a new era of James Bond-like technological proficiency, but there is nothing romantic about the job.

In fact, the poor souls manning the vessel are basically slaves that have been sent on a suicide mission. Often blackmailed or intimidated by crime syndicates due to debt or some other grievance, crew members face the added risk of malfunctioning machinery, toxic fumes, and the possibility of sinking in addition to obvious danger of being caught by authorities.

On the upside, should their journey be successful, crew members can appease their rift with crime gangs and make upwards of $1500 for a successful cargo drop. This may seem a paltry amount considering the liability involved, but for the average Central American with few prospects and an average wage of $10 a day (at the high end) it's a princely sum.

A ride on a typical narco-sub takes around 20-30 hours due to the relatively slow speed of the craft, about 10 to15 knots, (around 11-14 mph.) Further delays are common due to frequent stops to let engines cool, fumes dissipate and also to avoid pursuit.

The average sub has a tiny internal area. As they are generally enclosed cigarette boats, crew members remain seated throughout their trip, crawling from one end of the boat to the other to check the engines or cargo, or to use the toilet.

Perched on the ramshackle floor of the sub, the captain usually has no view of the ocean besides a crude periscope utilizing store-bought video cameras and plastic piping, the camera images visible on screens inside the sub.

Conditions inside the vessel are poor. Crew usually strip down to their underwear to endure the 100-plus degree temperatures. The overpowering smell of diesel and overflowing bucket toilets is omnipresent throughout the agonizing journey.

Communicating constantly with landlocked guides by radio or satellite telephone, crew members must be vigilant to evade detection.

A crew captain with over ten "runs" under his belt, Jean Paul, 42,  a French born former naval officer, is a rare veteran of the narco-sub game. JP left the military over six years ago and entered into several real estate developments in Costa Rica.

When his multi-million dollar investments turned belly up due to the economic downturn, some acquaintances hooked him up with sub operators. Now he had a way escape a mountain of debt by applying his nautical experience.

JP says he is now out of debt and actually considering further property investments after just two years in the business. Avoiding risks, he says nowadays he's more valuable to his employers by recruiting crew and engineers rather than driving the vessels.

Says JP, "It's a very dangerous game and generally the domain of the desperate. I was on two runs where we had to jettison the craft and sink it. One occasion saw the vessel taking on water and another was put down after coast guard began closing in."

Sinking a sub involves opening a number of portholes to let water in. "Then it's a matter of offloading as many bales of cargo as possible and getting out." JP says he and his two crew members swam to shore on the Guatemalan coastline without incident. They had started the journey in Columbia.

Death is part of the narco sub game and often a subsequence of losing a load or bungling a trip. JP says he's witness over ten deaths, with crew members and general cartel employees being shot due to betrayal or incompetence. "Funny I've never seen anyone drown, its always man on man stuff."

Irony is JP's friend. He says he's more concerned with the lesser dangers of piloting a sub. "Diesel fumes can kill you too, and the stench of another guy's shit for two days isn't nice either, both are usually worse than the prospect of a boat sinking."

Another crew member is 33 year old Jose, a source obtained via a mutual friend in El Salvador.   Jose, a fisherman by trade was born in Guatemala. He started his narco career after consecutively bad fishing seasons saw him revert to working as a runner for a cartel. His job was collecting dumped bales of weed and coke dumped by subs and boats offshore.

Jose reveals, "Many fishing boats in the region haven't fished in years. They just collect bails, but keep their nets on deck to look legitimate." He says he would like to go back to fishing one day, but for now the money is very good and he's got an ailing mother and a fourth child to care for. "There is no way I could make $1500 for two days work any other way."

Twenty-two-year-old Manuel was recruited to the narco business at an early age in his Salvadorian village. Since the age of 13, he has worked a variety of jobs, but he never dreamed he would earn the amount of money he does now, up to $800 for a two-day sub run.

Typical of the cavalier attitude towards narcotics shared by his colleagues, Manuel is adamant that smuggling narcotics is not necessarily an evil trade. "Gringo's have a huge hunger for the cargo and they always will. This business is very important for my people, many would not have food or shelter without it. It's been a savior."


Written by Craig Stephens

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