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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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