Run Silent, Run Deep, and Smuggle $100 Million Worth of Cocaine

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Columbian and U.S. antidrug agents are busy these days trying to combat a new weapon in the cartels’ arsenals: private navies of small, custom-built submarines that utilize increasingly sophisticated technology to avoid detection as they transport mountains of cocaine.

When drug-runners first turned to submarines more than a decade ago, their craft were crude and barely functional, and invited derision from more knowledgeable private submarine designers, the sort who belong to groups such as the Personal Submersibles Organization. But since then, according to this March 2011 Wired article, the cartels have made impressive progress in developing better designed, more technologically-sophisticated craft. 

The article describes one 74-foot-long sub that recently was captured along the Columbia-Ecuador border before it could be used. The craft, which experts estimated cost at least $5 million to build, was sheathed in a Kevlar and carbon-fiber hull instead of conventional steel, which would have made it more difficult to detect with sonar or radar. Nevertheless, the craft was sturdy enough to safely submerge to depths of more than 60 feet, where it could run silently for up to 18 hours at a stretch on two electric motors powered by 249 led-acid batteries. The sub also sported a pair of four-cylinder diesel engines capable of reaching a speed of 10 miles per hour on the surface. Factoring in surface travel, the sub would have had a range of nearly 7,000 miles–enough to make a round-trip from Columbia to the southern California coast. 

Nevertheless, the sub did have some techical flaws. Due to its depth limitations, even a slight miscalculation in taking in ballast could have caused a catastrophic accident. Even so, as one Ecuadoran naval officer told Wired: “It was incredible to find a submarine like that. I’m not sure who built it, but they knew what they were doing.”

They also knew how profitable the drug submarine could be. Such craft are cabable of transporting as many as 10 tons of cocaine–worth as much as $300 million–on each trip.

The U.S. military’s Southern Command, which is involved in the effort to curb Columbian drug-dealing, seized 76 cartel subs in 2008, but the number captured is dropping–either because traffickers are using different tactics, or because they are getting better at submarining. This 2010 article details the tactics that U.S. forces are now employing to counter the subs, which range from increased aerial surveillance to training exercises in which ships, planes and helicopters try to apprehend a previously captured drug-running sub. But perhaps the most effective tactic is conducting aerial surveillance of the jungles where the subs are built, in an effort to catch them before they can go to sea.

Here’s a look at what NGC found. For the whole story, tune in this Sunday at 9P et/pt:

Watch Cocaine Sub Hunt on Sunday, June 26 at 9 p.m.