Drug-Sub Culture

Written by David Kushner, New York Times Magazine

Sunday April 26th, 2009

The latest way to move cocaine out of Colombia? Underwater.

THE CRAFT FIRST surfaced like something out of a science-fiction movie. It was November 2006, and a Coast Guard cutter spotted a strange blur on the ocean 100 miles off Costa Rica. As the cutter approached, what appeared to be three snorkels poking up out of the water became visible. Then something even more surprising was discovered attached to the air pipes: a homemade submarine carrying four men, an AK-47 and three tons of cocaine.

Today, the 49-foot-long vessel bakes on concrete blocks outside the office of Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich in Key West, Fla. Here, at the Joint Interagency Task Force South, Nimmich commands drug-interdiction efforts in the waters south of the United States. Steely-eyed, gray-haired and dressed in a blue jumpsuit, he showed me the homemade sub one hot February afternoon like a hunter flaunting his catch. “We had rumors and indicators of this for a very long period beforehand,” he told me, which is why they nicknamed it Bigfoot.

This kind of vessel — a self-propelled, semisubmersible made by hand in the jungles of Colombia — is no longer quite so mythic: four were intercepted in January alone. But because of their ability to elude radar systems, these subs are almost impossible to detect; only an estimated 14 percent of them are stopped. And perhaps as many as 70 of them will be made this year, up from 45 or so in 2007, according to a task-force spokesman. Made for as little as $500,000 each and assembled in fewer than 90 days, they are now thought to carry nearly 30 percent of Colombia’s total cocaine exports.

These subs are the most ingenious innovation in the drug trade. But as Joe Biden told Congress last July, that’s not the only reason they pose “a significant danger to the United States.” In late January, a Sri Lankan Army task force found three semisubs being built by Tamil rebels in the jungles of Mullaitivu. “With this discovery the [Tamil] will go down in history as the first terrorist organization to develop underwater weapons,” the Sri Lankan ministry of defense declared.

Nimmich said, “If you can carry 10 tons of cocaine, you can carry 10 tons of anything.”

Bigfoot isn’t just a trophy. It’s a reminder of the ever-escalating cat-and-mouse game of drug interdiction. Before the subs, the battle focused on fishing vessels and “go fast” boats. In 2006, improved intelligence and radar detection from helicopters and cutters helped remove a record 256 metric tons of cocaine from what is estimated to have been more than a thousand metric tons that moved through the U.S. and Central and South American transit zones that year. But that led to the next wave of smuggling vessels. “Like any business, if you’re losing more and more of your product, you try to find a different way,” Nimmich said.

Early drug-sub experiments date back to the mid-1990s. In 1995, an émigré from the former Soviet Union was arrested in Miami after trying to broker the sale of an old Soviet sub from the Russian mafia to the Colombian cartels. In 2000, the Colombian police found Russian documents scattered in a warehouse in a suburb of Bogotá alongside a half-built, 100-foot-long submarine capable of carrying 200 tons of cocaine.

Building a fully submersible submarine is complicated and indiscreet, requiring highly skilled workers and a manufacturing facility that’s too big to be easily hidden. The alternative: semisubmersibles that, though considerably smaller than the sub found in the warehouse, can carry five times as much cocaine as a common fishing vessel. Nimmich said the rise of semisubs has been traced to two unnamed men, a Pakistani and a Sri Lankan, who in early 2006 provided plans to the Colombians for building semisubs quickly, stealthily and out of cheap, commonly available materials. One of the biggest concerns when making a drug sub is that a laborer will reveal its location before the work is done. For this reason, the 15 or 20 people brought in to build a craft remain on site for the duration. They set up a campsite in the dense brush, relying on generators for electricity and make the ships by hand. When I asked Nimmich if he was impressed by their craftsmanship, he arched a brow and said: “You ever try to build something in your backyard? They’re building these in the jungles.”

AT THE BEGINNING of last September, a 44-year-old fisherman named Padro Mercedes Arboleda-Palacios left the town of Buenaventura for a two-day trip upriver into the Colombian jungle. After staying in a small hut for several days, he was led by four men with rifles on another boat to a vessel in the woods surrounded by six armed guards. It was el ataúd, the coffin, the nickname Colombians gave to semisubs after a few were rumored to have disappeared at sea.

The subs’ dangerous reputation hasn’t stopped crew members — a captain, a navigator and two workers like Arboleda-Palacios — from taking the job. “Generally they don’t have much of a criminal background,” Adam Tanenbaum, an assistant federal public defender who has represented several drug-sub crew members, says. “They don’t do it because they’re in criminal life. They’re doing it to survive.” Arboleda-Palacios hadn’t worked on a drug boat before, but when a friend said he could make $3,000 at it, he accepted.

In early September, according to the lawyer who would later represent him and shared his story with me, Arboleda-Palacios squeezed into the cramped boat. He and the three others stood in the middle section, the navigation room — barely 12 feet across by 6 feet wide. There was GPS gear, a couple of mattresses on benches and a splintery wooden steering wheel from a fishing boat. The engine was in the stern. Two hundred and ninety-five bales of cocaine, weighing more than seven tons and with a street value of $196 million, were crammed into the bow. Packages of dry noodles and bottled water were the crew’s only provisions.

Two small, go-fast boats guided the semisub downriver and released the ship into the sea. As it crawled at barely seven miles per hour, water splashed over the porthole, making it all but impossible to see outside.

The captain called the base with his coordinates twice a day to get directions to the rendezvous point. Miles off the destination coast, a semisub is typically met by go-fast boats, which then take the cocaine to shore. Once their trips are complete, the subs are scuttled and abandoned — the cheapest and least conspicuous way to dispose of them. The crew then get the rest of their pay and are taken back home, if all goes well.

Two days after Arboleda-Palacios set out in the sub, his crew lost communication with the base. So they cut their engine and waited for contact as they drifted at sea.

IN THE DRUG-SUB hunt, one of Key West’s top figures is a 28-year-old Naval Intelligence officer who spent years in the Navy on nuclear subs and is unabashedly earnest about taking on the cartels. “It sounds corny,” he told me, “but I want to help make a better society.”

The officer, whom the government does not want identified because it says doing so might jeopardize future missions, was standing atop the rocking surface of Bigfoot II, the only working semisub that has been captured, which now resides at the Joint Interagency Task Force South. The 59-foot-long ship bobbed off the docks of Key West like something from the world of “Mad Max.” Two fat pipes in the aft twisted up from the flat top. There was a small square section raised in the middle with a thin rectangular window on each of the four sides. A hatch revealed the cramped navigation quarters inside that reeked of diesel — along with a snarl of cables and a faded wooden wheel for steering.

As Arboleda-Palacios was drifting elsewhere at sea last September, the U.S.S. McInerney spotted Bigfoot II 350 miles off the Mexico-­Guatemala coast. When the McInerney crew boarded the vessel, the smugglers inside Bigfoot II reversed direction to try to knock them into the sea. But the McInerney crew broke in and found four Colombians and 6.4 tons of cocaine worth $107 million inside.

Catching, let alone spotting, the drug subs is difficult. The Naval Intelligence officer compared it to patrolling the entire country as a sheriff with three cars. “So if there’s someone in Texas holding up a 7-Eleven, and somebody’s in Baltimore mugging somebody,” he said, “you have to move.”

The cocaine packed inside provides a built-in ballast, giving the boats, which are painted the color of the ocean, about a foot of freeboard above the surface. With little or no steel, the fiberglass-and-wood boats have a low radar signature. Some semisubs use lead pads to shield the hot engines from the military’s infrared sensors. Bigfoot II is among the newer models that have piping along the bottom to allow the water to cool the exhaust as the ship moves, making it even less susceptible to infrared detection.

“It’s amazing what they can build in the mangrove swamps,” the officer said, as he walked across the ship. “They take basic ingenuity and engineering and sculpt it to meet their needs.” He went on to say, “To underestimate their intelligence is a mistake.” Indeed, military and civilian researchers are racing to improve detection capabilities. In February, the officer spent a week driving Bigfoot II through the waters around Key West to test sensors used to identify the vehicles.

Daniel Stilwell, an engineer at the Autonomous Systems and Controls Laboratory at Virginia Tech, told me he is doing work for the Office of Naval Research on a small robotic boat that may one day be able “to operate 1,000 miles upriver and find the drug subs before they’re ever deployed.” But the Navy declined to reveal more. “Providing clues about new capabilities would encourage the traffickers to make tailored improvements that oppose these efforts,” Peter Vietti, a spokesman, said.

THREE DAYS AFTER Bigfoot II was seized, another semisub was detected at sea, and the Coast Guard cutter Midgett was sent to intercept it. “It was like ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,’ ” said the boarding officer of the Midgett.

The Midgett crew seized Arboleda-Palacios and the other smugglers, along with the cocaine, though the sub sank as they did so. Frequently, drug subs are scuttled by crews facing capture, taking the legal evidence down with the ship. But confiscating the drugs is no longer as crucial as it once was. The Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Assistance Act, which became law in October, now allows the United States to prosecute someone for merely being on board a semisub. Earlier this month, the first semisub crew members were convicted under this law (Arboleda-­Palacios was sentenced under older drug laws to 108 months). Such a law does not exist in Colombia. But Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, told me that one is in the works and could be enacted as early as June. He said the country is also looking to ban certain plastics used in semisub production. “We’re trying to detect small factories of these semisubmersibles,” he said. “We have to be also as audacious in terms of inventing a way to detect them.”

Legal and technical audacity may be required. As John Pike, a defense expert and the director of GlobalSecurity.org, told me, “If Al Qaeda decided they wanted to attack the homeland, or Iran decided they can attack the American homeland, this might be the way of getting in.” Then he added, “This is the 21st-century equivalent of German U-boats.”

How semisubs will evolve is difficult to predict, Nimmich said as we walked outside his office. Nearby, workers were putting up American flags and bleachers to celebrate an anniversary: the task force had been fighting the drug wars for 20 years. At some upcoming anniversary, it may be fighting fully submersible subs far underwater. Nimmich wouldn’t put it past the cartels. “If I was in their business,” he said, “it would be a technology I would be exploring.”