|Not the actual Narco Sub taken down|
An unprecedented sighting and seizure this month in Caribbean waters — a clunky submarine laden with 15,000 pounds of cocaine worth an estimated $180 million — may mean U.S. authorities are now in a two-ocean naval campaign against drug smugglers.
The sub's origin and destination: unknown. While many of such semi-submersible vessels — think of the Civil War ironclad Monitor — have been stopped in the eastern Pacific, the one that authorities spotted July 13 was the first to appear in the Caribbean.
"This is a once in a lifetime, once in a career thing," said Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, skipper of one of the Coast Guard cutters that assisted in the interception of the vessel.
The ships are called SPSSs, or self-propelled semi-submersibles. They have engines and a cruising range of 5,000 miles. What makes these boats different is that to avoid detection they lie mostly under water, with only a few feet above the surface, usually painted blue to match the sea.
The vessels are usually built in the jungles of Colombia, are less than 100 feet long and can cost $750,000 to $1 million each. They can carry up to 10 tons of drugs, as well as a crew of four to five sailors for whom claustrophobia is not a concern.
According to Coast Guard spokesman Patrick Montgomery of Miami, the approximately 30-foot-long sub was sighted by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection plane on routine patrol off the coast of Honduras near Nicaragua. The Coast Guard cutter Seneca, along with its chopper and pursuit boat, swiftly converged on the narco sub.
The half submerged vessel soon slipped out of sight beneath the waves.
"It was immediately obvious to our boarding team that the SPSS was taking on water after being scuttled by its crew," Cmdr. Charles Fosse, the Seneca's skipper, said in an audio feed provided by the Coast Guard.
Drug subs crews often open valves and flood their craft if detected, abandon ship and send the boat to the bottom — along with any evidence of contraband. That's what this crew apaprently did, before being yanked aboard the Coast Guard's pursuit boat.
"The SPSS sank seconds after that," Fosse said. But not before the boarding team seized two packages of cocaine — clues that more might be in the hold of the sunken ship.
For 13 days, several Coast Guard cutters, an FBI dive team and the Honduran navy scoured the bottom until they found the submersible in about 60 feet of water. Over the next four days they hauled more than 200 bales of cocaine to the surface, some 15,000 pounds in all.
"The crew was very excited," said Fosse.
Semi-submersibles first came to light in 2001 when one was discovered in a Bogota warehouse. It wasn't until 2006 when another was actually captured in the Pacific. Dan Dewell, spokesman for the Coast Guard's Alameda, Calif., station, said they ferry drugs from Colombia and Ecuador to Mexico, Guatemala or Costa Rica. The narcotics are then transported over land, mostly to the United States.
The subs typically don't attempt to enter U.S. waters, Dewell said. But federal agencies continue patrolling offshore in case they alter their strategy.
As many as a dozen semi-submersibles have been intercepted in the Pacific since 2006.
"At first SPSSs were made of wood and fiberglass, now we're starting to see more steel construction," Montgomery said. "They're not able to go completely under water, they need access to air."
Their low profile makes them hard to detect by eye, radar or heat-seeking camera.
More such cases may be on the watery horizon.
"The drug trafficking organizations are powerful, flexible and dangerous," Montgomery said. "They're nimble and they're always using new tactics."
To elude patrols, the SPSSs will go as far offshore as the Galapagos Islands, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. Dewell said.
The Coast Guard said the submersibles are responsible for about one-third of the drug shipments smuggled by sea from South to Central America. "We're assuming that some are getting through," Dewell said.
Smuggling by sub isn't a new concept. In the late '90s, three men with South Florida connections were charged with a failed attempt to buy a submarine from Russian mobsters to smuggle drugs into the U.S.
For Niles, skipper of the Coast Guard cutter Oak, this month's seizure was a high point of his 27-year career. "I've never been involved in a drug case like this," he said in an audio feed.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami will decide on how or whether to prosecute the crew of suspected smugglers.
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