Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus
By Jim Popkin
The clatter of helicopter blades echoed across the jungles of northwestern Ecuador. Antinarcotics commandos in three choppers peered at the mangroves below, scanning for any sign of activity. The police had received a tip that a gang of Colombian drug smugglers had set up a clandestine work site here, in a dense swamp 5 miles south of Colombia’s border. And whatever the traffickers were building, the tipster had warned, was truly enormous.
For decades, Colombian drug runners have pursued their trade with diabolical ingenuity, staying a step ahead of authorities by coming up with one innovation after another. When false-paneled pickups and tractor-trailers began drawing suspicion at US checkpoints, the cartels and their Mexican partners built air-conditioned tunnels under the border. When border agents started rounding up too many human mules, one group of Colombian smugglers surgically implanted heroin into purebred puppies. But the drug runners’ most persistently effective method has also been one of the crudest—semisubmersible vessels that cruise or are towed just below the ocean’s surface and can hold a ton or more of cocaine.
Assembled in secret shipyards along the Pacific coast, they’ve been dubbed drug subs by the press, but they’re incapable of diving or maneuvering like real submarines. In fact, they’re often just cigarette boats encased in wood and fiberglass that are scuttled after a single mission. Yet despite their limitations, these semisubmersibles are notoriously difficult to track. US and Colombian officials estimate that the cartels have used them to ship hundreds of tons of cocaine from Colombia over the past five years alone.
But several years ago, intelligence agencies began hearing that the cartels had made a technological breakthrough: They were constructing some kind of supersub in the jungle. According to the persistent rumors, the phantom vessel was an honest-to-goodness, fully functioning submarine with vastly improved range—nothing like the disposable water coffins the Colombians had been using since the ’90s. US law enforcement officials began to think of it as a sort of Loch Ness Monster, says one agent: “Never seen one before, never seized one before. But we knew it was out there.”
Finally, the Ecuadoreans had enough information to launch a full-fledged raid. On July 2, 2010, a search party—including those three police helicopters, an armada of Ecuadorean navy patrol boats, and 150 well-armed police and sailors—scoured the coastline near the Colombian border. When a patrol boat happened on some abandoned barrels in a clearing off the Río Molina, the posse moved in to find an astillero, or jungle shipyard, complete with spacious workshops, kitchens, and sleeping quarters for 40. The raid had clearly interrupted the workday—rice pots from breakfast were still on the stove.
And there was something else hastily abandoned in a narrow estuary: a 74-foot camouflaged submarine—nearly twice as long as a city bus—with twin propellers and a 5-foot conning tower, beached on its side at low tide. “It was incredible to find a submarine like that,” says rear admiral Carlos Albuja, who oversees Ecuadorean naval operations along the northwest coast. “I’m not sure who built it, but they knew what they were doing.”
A cargo hold in the sub's bow can hold up to 9 tons of cocaine, worth about $250 million.
Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus
Four hundred miles away at the US embassy in Bogotá, Jay Bergman received the news with a sense of vindication. As the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s top official in South America, Bergman had followed the chatter about a rumored supersub for years—even as his colleagues remained deeply skeptical. But any satisfaction he felt was undercut by the implications of the discovery. The drug cartels continued to grow more sophisticated. If the DEA and other agencies hoped to keep up, they’d have to figure out how the traffickers built the sub, how to prevent them from building more, and—most important—how to detect others that might already be out there. “This is a quantum leap in technology,” Bergman says over a breakfast of eggs and strong Colombian coffee at a Bogotá hotel. “It poses some formidable challenges.”
The US government’s first step was a stern-to-snorkel assessment. Agents from the Farragut Technical Analysis Center—a branch of the US Office of Naval Intelligence that helps the Pentagon assess the capabilities of North Korean battleships and Russian nuclear subs—went down to Ecuador. Over two days, the team broke down every aspect of the vessel’s construction. They examined the hull with an electron microscope and energy-dispersive x-ray to determine its composition. They pored over the technical capabilities of the sub’s Chinese engines to calculate its range. And they studied the maximum amount of breathing time the crew would have underwater, without the aid of CO2 scrubbers, before they’d be forced to surface.
The group summed up its findings in a 70-page white paper—marked FOUO, for official use only—that conveys a grudging respect for the engineers and craftsmen who were able to build something so seaworthy in the middle of a swamp. “The streamlined hull, diesel-electric propulsion system, and fuel ballast system design all show a significant level of technical expertise and knowledge of submersible operations,” it states. The hull, they discovered, was made from a costly and exotic mixture of Kevlar and carbon fiber, tough enough to withstand modest ocean pressures but difficult to trace at sea. Like a classic German U-boat, the drug-running submarine uses diesel engines on the surface and battery-powered electric motors when submerged. With a crew of four to six, it has a maximum operational range of 6,800 nautical miles on the surface and can go 10 days without refueling. Packed with 249 lead-acid batteries, the behemoth can also travel silently underwater for up to 18 hours before recharging.
The most valuable feature, though, is the cargo bay, capable of holding up to 9 tons of cocaine—a street value of about $250 million. The vessel ferries that precious payload using a GPS chart plotter with side-scan capabilities and a high-frequency radio—essential gadgetry to ensure on-time deliveries. There’s also an electro-optical periscope and an infrared camera mounted on the conning tower—visual aids that supplement two miniature windows in the makeshift cockpit.
Old go-kart steering wheels control the flippers for diving and surfacing.
Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus
Today the supersub sits propped on a pedestal like a trophy at Ecuador’s naval command headquarters in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city and main port. Fresh air is piped in to keep investigators cool, and a tin roof protects it from the elements. Inside, the captured sub looks like the garage of a failed inventor; exposed PVC pipe hangs from the ceiling, batteries and plastic tubing are littered throughout the cabin, electrical wires are patched to the walls without any apparent logic. Old go-kart steering wheels control flippers on the sub’s exterior, helping it to dive and surface. Crew comfort seems to have been an afterthought. Standing room is precious, and there are no visible seats or bunks. During a recent tour, diesel fumes barely masked the powerful combination of urine and man-stink lingering months after the sub’s discovery.
Smuggling huge rolls of Kevlar, four engines, 249 back-breaking batteries, and thousands of obscure marine parts to a remote equatorial shipyard takes patience, money, and cojones. But does building a homemade submarine also take real smarts? The American and Colombian sub hunters seem to think so, but what do big government institutions know about hacking together a custom sub in a poorly equipped workshop? When powerful navies want a new submarine, they call defense contractors. To truly understand the complexities of building a sub from scratch, the real experts are a band of irrepressible hobbyists who build personal submarines in their backyards.
Jon Wallace, a Unix software programmer for Hewlett-Packard, has headed the Personal Submersibles Organization, or Psubs, for 15 years. The group promotes the safe design, construction, and operation of personal submarines. It has 53 active members, mostly middle-aged American men “with their mortgage and kids under control,” Wallace says. They’re the kind of guys who are willing to spend every weekend in their suburban garages hand-welding custom vessels, the better to explore the bottoms of nearby lakes. Construction can require years and a masterful sales pitch. “It’s not that easy to say, ‘Honey, I just need $25,000 and the driveway for the next two years,” Wallace says.
Psubs members have been tracking the development of the drug runners’ semisubmersible creations for years. And they haven’t been very impressed. “Five hundred grand for a snorkel semisub. Ha!” reads a typical posting on the Psubs website from 2009. “These guys may have a lot of money, but they are not the sharpest tools in the shed!” snorts another.
But the towel-snapping ended with last summer’s discovery of the submarine in Ecuador. “This is the most sophisticated sub we’ve seen to date,” Wallace says. “It’s a very good design in terms of shape and controls.”
Illustration: Kristian Hammerstad
The vessel, which never had a chance to take its maiden voyage, is by no means perfect. Its steel-free hull can’t withstand depths of more than 62 feet, according to the US Navy’s technical assessment, a limitation that gives the pilot an incredibly narrow comfort zone. In other words, the slightest miscalculation in ballast—the amount of seawater a sub takes in to dive—could spell disaster for the unwieldy, 16-foot-high vessel.
Still, while they don’t approve of its purpose, the Psubs members confirm that the craft is an impressive piece of work. “Something like that would have taken a year or so in a modern shop,” says Vance Bradley, a member of the group’s advisory council and a former professional submarine fabricator. “Imagine doing it out in the boonies with the mosquitoes and vermin!”
That gets at one of the most vexing questions surrounding the sub: How was the beast actually built? According to Bergman’s calculations, it must have cost at least $5 million to construct. Which drug gang would devote that kind of money to this black-market engineering project? Did they design it themselves, or did they recruit disaffected Russians or other foreign naval specialists? Were professional submarine pilots used to manage the tedious construction and begin underwater testing? Was it just a coincidence that so many of the parts were from China?
Some answers can probably be deduced from the nearly three dozen old-school semisubmersibles that US and Colombian forces have confiscated since 2006—or from the 83 crew members who have been captured and prosecuted in that time, many of whom have traded information about the boats and their makers in exchange for reduced prison time. If their experience is an accurate guide, the supersub was likely built in sections in the backwoods Ecuadorean shipyard and then assembled at an adjacent estuary during low tide. Skilled engineers likely called the shots, directing teams of impoverished local laborers. Gas-powered generators may have been used, but the yearlong project would have been done mostly by hand without the help of electricity. Every bolt, pipe, and engine part would have been imported and laboriously smuggled in on small, canoe-like boats.
The Colombian Cartels may be impressive and resourceful engineers today, but Miguel Angel Montoya knows that just a decade ago they were hopeless amateurs. A former drug-cartel associate who says he designed some of the early semisubmersibles, Montoya quit the business in 2001 and wrote a tell-all book (Yesterday a Doctor, Today a Narco-Trafficker). He’s understandably cautious about his security and would agree to be interviewed only via email.
In the early ’90s, Montoya explains, his bosses had begun launching cocaine-smuggling vessels from the Colombian coast. At the time, most of the contraptions were laughable—like something out of those black-and-white newsreels of early flying machines that piteously crash into barns. Some looked like oversize bathtubs. Others resembled sea monsters with jutting pipes for necks. Montoya and his partners made their bosses a daring proposal: Let us help you design a new way to ferry cocaine underwater to Mexico.
In 1999, Montoya and his associates began designing a finned, dart-shaped tube that could be crammed with cocaine and towed underwater by fishing trawlers to evade detection. His “narco torpedo” was unmanned and carried radio transponders to locate it if traffickers had to ditch it on the open seas. When the torpedoes were ready to begin field-testing, Montoya says, he was escorted to a clandestine camp in Colombia’s remote coastal region south of Buenaventura. He recalls riding for hours through a labyrinth of rivers and unnamed tributaries. “The place was practically invisible from the air, and the jungle was impenetrable. We walked on planks set on swampland,” Montoya says. “The air was thick with chemical fumes from resins. Hundreds of workers lived there, and the roar of motorboats was always present. They’d come and go by the dozens.”
Laborers were converting boats into precarious semisubmersibles that local fishing boat captains would pilot to Mexico for a quick payoff. “Only poor people live in the area. They’re in the Stone Age. They’ll give anything a go for very little money or food,” Montoya says.
Montoya conducted practice runs with his makeshift torpedo in desolate local rivers and videotaped the launches. His bosses were enthusiastic and decided to give it a try. Montoya’s capsules carried loads up the Pacific coast for at least three years without a problem, delivering cocaine to Mexico for eventual sale in the US. When the Colombian navy finally confiscated one of the torpedoes, they marveled at the design and reverse-engineered it to better understand how it was built—much as they’ve done to the 54 other drug-toting semisubmersibles they’ve captured. Montoya ultimately left the cartel in disillusionment. “I lost my family, my profession. I fell into drug and alcohol use,” he says. “My friends died or were in jail, and my head had a price on it. This is simply no way to earn a living, however glamorous and attractive it may seem.” Looking back, he says the Colombian cartels were honing their skills in preparation for their ultimate goal—the construction of long-distance vessels that could dive and surface on command. What the drug lords have always wanted, he says, was their own fleet of fully functioning submarines.
The D.E.A.’s Bergman thinks the drug lords may have finally achieved that dream. Immediately after the raid in Ecuador, Bergman publicly stated that he had to assume there were other such submarines operating throughout the region. About seven months later, on Valentine’s Day of 2011, he was proven correct when the Colombian navy announced that it had seized a second drug-running supersub. This one had also been built in the jungle. It was 101 feet long, could hold up to 8 tons of cocaine, and could withstand ocean depths of about 30 feet, Colombian officials said. “One is an aberration,” Bergman says. “Two is an emerging trend.” He presumes there are more.
The prospect of Colombian drug traffickers running their own private navy poses problems that won’t be solved with a few arrests. “This is one of those cases we’re not going to divert our attention from. It has implications that go beyond law enforcement. It has national security implications,” Bergman says. After all, there is no reason the subs have to be limited to the drug trade. They could carry illegal immigrants or even terrorists, or be sold to the highest bidder for any number of nefarious purposes.
Consequently, the supersubs are garnering high-level attention. Ecuadorean military brass briefed US defense secretary Robert Gates. And Bergman’s DEA agents gave a lengthy presentation to Coast Guard and Pentagon officials with the Joint Interagency Task Force South, the Florida-based intelligence unit responsible for detecting drug-running semisubmersibles on the open sea. The task force works with law enforcement agencies—which have unmanned aerial drones, Coast Guard cutters, and warships at their disposal—but they wouldn’t comment on how they might try to locate the new long-range narco subs. Given the Navy’s recent 70-page assessment, however, tracking them won’t be so easy. “The vessel is assessed to be quiet, while operating under electric power, and potentially difficult to detect acoustically or by radar,” the Navy concludes.
In the meantime, Montoya predicts that the jungle shipbuilders will continue to perfect their craft. “These efforts have been in the making for at least 17 years, since the time of Escobar,” he says. “It would be realistic to assume that there is a sub en route to Mexico or Europe at this very moment.”
Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus
Jim Popkin (email@example.com) is a writer and former head of the NBC News Investigative Unit.