April 25, 2012: On March 30th the U.S. Coast Guard captured its 30th cocaine smuggling submarine, in the Caribbean. This is the fifth such capture in the Caribbean, with the other 25 captured in the Pacific. It's currently estimated that 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States leaves South America via these submarines or semi-submersible boats. Most of these craft are "semi-submersibles." They are 10-20 meter (31-62 foot) fiberglass boats, powered by a diesel engine, with a very low freeboard, and a small "conning tower" providing the crew (of 4-5), and engine, with fresh air and permitting the crew to navigate. A boat of this type was, since they first appeared in the early 1990s, thought to be the only practical kind of submarine for drug smuggling. But in the last decade the drug gangs have developed real submarines, capable of carrying five tons of cocaine that cost a lot more and don't require a highly trained crew. These subs borrow a lot of technology and ideas from the growing number of recreational submarines being built.
The Colombian security forces and other Latin American navies have been responsible for most of these vessel captures. Most of these boats are sunk by their crews when spotted but the few that were captured intact revealed features like an extensive collection of communications gear, indicating an effort to avoid capture by monitoring many police and military frequencies. The Colombians have captured several of these vessels before they could be launched. In the last few years the Colombians have been collecting a lot of information on those who actually build these subs for the drug gangs and FARC (leftist rebels that provide security and often transportation for moving cocaine). That includes finding out where the construction takes place.
Last year Colombian police arrested eighteen members of a gang that specialized in building submarines and semisubmersible boats. As police suspected, five of those arrested were retired or on active duty with the Colombian Navy (which operates two 1970s era German built Type 209 submarines). These arrests were part of an intense effort to find the people responsible for building subs for cocaine gangs. Find the builders and you stop the building efforts.
Since cocaine cartels in South America began using submarines and semi-submersible craft to transport cocaine north, the U.S. and Colombia have been desperately seeking the specialists responsible for designing and building these craft. Last year Argentina revealed they had arrested one of the main organizers of the sub building operation. The suspect, Ignacio Alvarez Meyendorff, was identified as working for the Colombian Norte del Valle drug cartel and in charge of logistics for the submarine construction project. It's believed that Meyendorff was tracked down via information obtained by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Apparently, Meyendorff, or documents captured when he was arrested, provided enough data to make further arrests and run down the location of many of the subs.
The submarines that have been captured have, on closer examination, turned out to be more sophisticated than first thought. The outer hulls are made of strong, lightweight Kevlar/carbon fiber that is sturdy enough to keep the sub intact but very difficult to detect with most sensors. The hulls cannot survive deep dives but these boats don't have to go deep to get the job done. The diesel-electric power supply, diving and surfacing system, and navigational systems of captured subs was often in working order. It was believed that some of those who built these boats probably had experience building recreational subs. The sub builders also had impressive knowledge of the latest materials used to build exotic boats. It had already become clear that something extraordinary was happening in these improvised jungle shipyards.
It was only two years ago that Ecuadoran police found the first real diesel-electric cocaine carrying submarine. It was nearly completed and ready to go into a nearby river, near the Colombian border, and move out into the Pacific Ocean. The 23.5 meter (73 foot) long, three meter (nine feet) in diameter boat was capable of submerging. The locally built boat had a periscope, conning tower, and was air conditioned. It had commercial fish sonar mounted up front so that it could navigate safely while underwater. There was a toilet on board but no galley (kitchen) or bunks. Submarine experts believed that a five man crew could work shifts to take care of navigation and steering the boat. The boat could submerge to about 16 meters (50 feet). At that depth the batteries and oxygen on board allowed the sub to travel up 38 kilometers in one hour, or at a speed of 9 kilometers an hour for 5-6 hours. This would be sufficient to escape any coastal patrol boats that spotted the sub while it moved along on the surface (its normal travel mode). The boat could also submerge to avoid very bad weather. The sub carried sufficient diesel fuel to make a trip from Ecuador to Mexico. There was a cargo space that could hold up to seven tons of cocaine.
The sub was captured where it was being assembled, and a nearby camp for the builders appeared to house about fifty people. A lot of evidence was collected, and apparently the U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) used that to develop clues about who was involved. It was the DEA that put together the pieces that led to identifying Meyendorff and locating him in Argentina.
The Ecuadoran boat was the first such sub to be completed but not the first to be attempted. A decade ago Russian naval architects and engineers were discovered among those designing and building a similar, but larger, boat. However, that effort did not last, as the Russian designs were too complex and expensive. It was found easier to build semi-submersible craft. But more and more of these new type subs are being found.