BAHIA MALAGA, Colombia -- Stacked along one edge of the Bahía Málaga naval base is what authorities call “the museum” — a long row of impounded vehicles that chart the evolution of the drug trafficking industry. There are the lumbering fishing boats that used to run marijuana in the 1970s and 1980s, Miami Vice-era “go-fast” boats, and an entire fleet of manned and unmanned semisubmersibles.
But the crown jewel of the display, and the stuff of drug enforcement nightmares, is a fully functional narco-sub. Built in the jungle, the hulking blue submarine can carry eight tons of cocaine and is similar to the nation’s own tactical sub, with one addition: This one has indoor plumbing. Discovered last year in the dense mangroves that make this region a smugglers’ paradise, the submarine — technically a “snorkel sub” — can hit speeds of 12-15 knots and travel 8,000 miles. That’s more than enough to make it to the coast of California and back, said Capt. Nelson Hernandez. Designed to travel 32 feet below water with only a small intake valve protruding, it would have been virtually undetectable if it were launched, he said.
“With this kind of technology we might see a huge flow of drugs, or guns or anything heading north,” Hernandez said.
As the United States wages the war on drugs, this stretch of Colombia’s Pacific coast is the Silicon Valley of narco-innovation. When the trafficking industry develops new maritime technology to stay ahead of the law, this is often where it appears first.
For years, smugglers have been using semi-submersibles, which glide just below the water’s surface leaving no wake and a weak radar signature. Authorities began busting them in the late 1990s, but a local port manager in nearby Buenaventura recalls seeing the first one in the 1980s.
But full-fledged submarines are relatively new. Only three have been found in South America in recent years — two in Colombia and one in neighboring Ecuador. A fourth, much earlier, version was discovered in Colombia’s capital in 2000.
In Senate testimony last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Chief of Intelligence Rodney Benson said the advent of “self-propelled fully submersible vessels… underscores the incredible lengths drug traffickers will take to move their product.”
“Although these vessels are unlikely to supplant more traditional drug trafficking conveyances, analysis suggests that fully submersible vehicles carry large loads of cocaine and are extremely difficult to detect,” he said.
About 60 percent of Colombia’s submersible busts relied on intelligence sources and investigative work — not technology like radar, Hernandez said.
Authorities monitor charter flights into the region and track new moons and high tides to try to predict traffickers’ moves. Smugglers are superstitious, so authorities keep tabs on the local brujas, or witches, for clues, he said.
“When does the bruja bring in her herbs? When is the bruja alone? When is the bruja at home? When does the bruja have guests?” Hernandez said. “All of these things are part of the analysis.”
Authorities have impounded 23 semisubmersibles and detected 96 over the years. Countless others have been scuttled by traffickers to keep from being caught, Hernandez said.