Drug smuggling submarine captured in Ecuador

Rumours of narco sub true

It has long been the stuff of
drug-trafficking legend, but federal authorities announced on Saturday that
they have helped seize the first known and fully operational submarine built by
drug traffickers to smuggle tons of cocaine from South America toward the
United States.

The diesel-electric powered
submarine was captured in an Ecuadorian jungle waterway leading to the Pacific
Ocean, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The sub, which is about 100 feet
long and equipped with a periscope, was seized before its maiden voyage by
Ecuadorian authorities armed with Drug Enforcement Agency intelligence.

The discovery is seen by
authorities as a game-changer in terms of the challenge it poses not only to
fighting drugs but to national security as well.

“The submarine’s nautical range,
payload capacity, and quantum leap in stealth have raised the stakes for the
counter-drug forces and the national security community alike,” said DEA Andean
Regional Director Jay Bergman.

It is unclear how far the
camouflage-painted submarine could have travelled, but it is believed to be
sophisticated enough to cover thousands of miles – and certainly to make it to
the North American coast.

“There is a sense of urgency for
naval engineers and submariners to take a look at this thing and dissect it and
take it apart and figure out what its real capabilities were,” Mr. Bergman
said. “The police have seized this structure, but the people that need to get
on there are naval engineers.”

Bergman noted that traffickers
have used speed boats, sail boats, fishing boats and specialized craft that
float low in the water, but this is the first true submarine discovered.

“Now that the Loch Ness Monster
has been found, the interdiction community is going to retool their search
patterns and how they conduct business,” he said.

Back in 2000 in a Bogota,
Colombia, warehouse authorities thought they had found the first ever narco
submarine, but it turned out to be an enclosed boat that floated low in the
water, rather than completely under the surface.

The final frontier

The submarine seized in Ecuador
was built in what was described as a clandestine dry dock of industrial proportions
and even had housing for dozens of workers.

It marks what could be argued as
the final frontier for traffickers who have squared off against law enforcement
on the land, in the air and on the sea, and now look to go beneath the waves to
reach lucrative drug markets.

“There is no place else they can
go in terms of maritime,” Mr. Bergman said. “The traffickers have now exhausted
every possibility.”

Among the questions is who could
have designed such a sophisticated machine, as well as piloted it.

But the biggest issue haunting
federal agents is this: How many more might be out there?

“The DEA is very good,” Mr.
Bergman said, “but what are the odds of us detecting the first one ever built
before it got underway? I’d say this is the first one we caught.”

Larry Karson, a retired Customs
Service agent who is a criminal justice lecturer at the University of Houston
Downtown, said the DEA very well could have found the only real narco sub.

Hard to hide

He noted that it isn’t easy to
keep a dry dock covert, let alone all the people involved.

“It is feasible,” said Mr.
Karson, who noted that for years authorities have heard rumours of drug
traffickers getting a submarine. But most figured traffickers would most likely
buy a used one, not make their own.

“I think everybody has been
looking for it, it has been a matter of time,” he said. “There was a rumour
somebody would find a used one on the market. We’ve been using them since the
Civil War.”

He noted that the former Navy
P-3s that now are used by US Customs and Border Protection to search for sea
and airborne traffickers sneaking loads toward the United States might have to
revert to their old submarine hunting mission.

Finding the sub comes as part of
a long-term cat and mouse game in which authorities have combed jungles and
flown over thousands of miles of open ocean each week in an attempt to deny
traffickers easy access to their US markets.

As Mr. Bergman put it: “This is
the final frontier for the maritime drug traffickers. We remained completely
incredulous until the last minute.”

“Good cops never underestimate
their enemy or the ingenuity of the adversary,” he said. “But seeing is
believing and that is what this day is.”