Authorities in Awe of Drug Runners' Jungle-Built, Kevlar-Coated Supersubs

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Thu Mar 31 08:30:31 PDT 2011

Authorities in Awe of Drug Runners' Jungle-Built, Kevlar-Coated Supersubs

    By Jim Popkin Email Author March 29, 2011  | 12:00 pm  | Wired April 2011

Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus

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 Colombiabs 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 runnersb most
persistently effective method has also been one of the
crudestbsemisubmersible vessels that cruise or are towed just below the
oceanbs surface and can hold a ton or more of cocaine.

Assembled in secret shipyards along the Pacific coast, theybve been dubbed
drug subs by the press, but theybre incapable of diving or maneuvering like
real submarines. In fact, theybre 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 rangebnothing like the disposable water coffins the Colombians had
been using since the b90s. US law enforcement officials began to think of it
as a sort of Loch Ness Monster, says one agent: bNever seen one before, never
seized one before. But we knew it was out there.b

Finally, the Ecuadoreans had enough information to launch a full-fledged
raid. On July 2, 2010, a search partybincluding those three police
helicopters, an armada of Ecuadorean navy patrol boats, and 150 well-armed
police and sailorsbscoured the coastline near the Colombian border. When a
patrol boat happened on some abandoned barrels in a clearing off the RC-o
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 workdaybrice pots from breakfast were still on the

And there was something else hastily abandoned in a narrow estuary: a 74-foot
camouflaged submarinebnearly twice as long as a city busbwith twin propellers
and a 5-foot conning tower, beached on its side at low tide. bIt was
incredible to find a submarine like that,b says rear admiral Carlos Albuja,
who oversees Ecuadorean naval operations along the northwest coast. bIbm not
sure who built it, but they knew what they were doing.b Photo: Christoph

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 BogotC!, Jay Bergman received
the news with a sense of vindication. As the US Drug Enforcement Agencybs top
official in South America, Bergman had followed the chatter about a rumored
supersub for yearsbeven 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, theybd have to figure out how the traffickers
built the sub, how to prevent them from building more, andbmost importantbhow
to detect others that might already be out there. bThis is a quantum leap in
technology,b Bergman says over a breakfast of eggs and strong Colombian
coffee at a BogotC! hotel. bIt poses some formidable challenges.b

The US governmentbs first step was a stern-to-snorkel assessment. Agents from
the Farragut Technical Analysis Centerba branch of the US Office of Naval
Intelligence that helps the Pentagon assess the capabilities of North Korean
battleships and Russian nuclear subsbwent down to Ecuador. Over two days, the
team broke down every aspect of the vesselbs 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 subbs 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 theybd be forced to surface.

The group summed up its findings in a 70-page white paperbmarked FOUO, for
official use onlybthat conveys a grudging respect for the engineers and
craftsmen who were able to build something so seaworthy in the middle of a
swamp. bThe streamlined hull, diesel-electric propulsion system, and fuel
ballast system design all show a significant level of technical expertise and
knowledge of submersible operations,b 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 cocaineba 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 radiobessential gadgetry to ensure on-time deliveries.
Therebs also an electro-optical periscope and an infrared camera mounted on
the conning towerbvisual 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 Ecuadorbs
naval command headquarters in Guayaquil, the countrybs 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 subbs 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 subbs 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 bwith their
mortgage and kids under control,b Wallace says. Theybre 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. bItbs not that
easy to say, bHoney, I just need $25,000 and the driveway for the next two
years,b Wallace says.

Psubs members have been tracking the development of the drug runnersb
semisubmersible creations for years. And they havenbt been very impressed.
bFive hundred grand for a snorkel semisub. Ha!b reads a typical posting on
the Psubs website from 2009. bThese guys may have a lot of money, but they
are not the sharpest tools in the shed!b snorts another.

But the towel-snapping ended with last summerbs discovery of the submarine in
Ecuador. bThis is the most sophisticated sub webve seen to date,b Wallace
says. bItbs a very good design in terms of shape and controls.b

Anatomy of a Drug Sub

The 74-foot vessel seized from a remote jungle shipyard in Ecuador is nothing
like the crude semisubmersibles that Colombian drug runners have used in
recent years. Here are some of the sophisticated craftbs standout

Conning Tower

A 5 B= foot tower with tiny windows, electro-optical periscope, and infrared
camera provides a window on the world above while the bulk of the ship
remains submerged.


The subbs 249 lead-acid batteries power two electric motors, letting it run
silently underwater for up to 18 hours before recharging.

Main Engines

On the surface, the vessel uses a pair of four-cylinder diesel engines to
reach speeds up to 8.5 knots (10 mph), with a range of 6,800 nautical
milesbroughly one round-trip from Colombia to San Diego.


The submarine is sheathed in Kevlar and carbon fiber instead of steel, making
it hard to detect with sonar or radar. Itbs strong enough to withstand depths
of up to 62 feet.

Buoyancy System

Compressed air is used to blow seawater out of more than a dozen ballast
tanks, increasing the subbs buoyancy so it can surface. To dive, valves are
opened to take in water.

Illustration: Kristian Hammerstad

The vessel, which never had a chance to take its maiden voyage, is by no
means perfect. Its steel-free hull canbt withstand depths of more than 62
feet, according to the US Navybs technical assessment, a limitation that
gives the pilot an incredibly narrow comfort zone. In other words, the
slightest miscalculation in ballastbthe amount of seawater a sub takes in to
divebcould spell disaster for the unwieldy, 16-foot-high vessel.

Still, while they donbt approve of its purpose, the Psubs members confirm
that the craft is an impressive piece of work. bSomething like that would
have taken a year or so in a modern shop,b says Vance Bradley, a member of
the groupbs advisory council and a former professional submarine fabricator.
bImagine doing it out in the boonies with the mosquitoes and vermin!b

That gets at one of the most vexing questions surrounding the sub: How was
the beast actually built? According to Bergmanbs 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 2006bor
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.  Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus

The sub was discovered on July 2, 2010, in an estuary in the jungles of

Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus

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). Hebs
understandably cautious about his security and would agree to be interviewed
only via email.

In the early b90s, Montoya explains, his bosses had begun launching
cocaine-smuggling vessels from the Colombian coast. At the time, most of the
contraptions were laughableblike 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

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 bnarco torpedob 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 Colombiabs remote coastal region south
of Buenaventura. He recalls riding for hours through a labyrinth of rivers
and unnamed tributaries. bThe place was practically invisible from the air,
and the jungle was impenetrable. We walked on planks set on swampland,b
Montoya says. bThe air was thick with chemical fumes from resins. Hundreds of
workers lived there, and the roar of motorboats was always present. Theybd
come and go by the dozens.b

Laborers were converting boats into precarious semisubmersibles that local
fishing boat captains would pilot to Mexico for a quick payoff. bOnly poor
people live in the area. Theybre in the Stone Age. Theybll give anything a go
for very little money or food,b 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. Montoyabs 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 builtbmuch as theybve done to the 54 other
drug-toting semisubmersibles theybve captured. Montoya ultimately left the
cartel in disillusionment. bI lost my family, my profession. I fell into drug
and alcohol use,b he says. bMy 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.b Looking back, he says the Colombian cartels were
honing their skills in preparation for their ultimate goalbthe 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 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 Valentinebs 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. bOne is an aberration,b
Bergman says. bTwo is an emerging trend.b He presumes there are more.

The prospect of Colombian drug traffickers running their own private navy
poses problems that wonbt be solved with a few arrests. bThis is one of those
cases webre not going to divert our attention from. It has implications that
go beyond law enforcement. It has national security implications,b 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 Bergmanbs 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 agenciesbwhich have unmanned aerial
drones, Coast Guard cutters, and warships at their disposalbbut they wouldnbt
comment on how they might try to locate the new long-range narco subs. Given
the Navybs recent 70-page assessment, however, tracking them wonbt be so
easy. bThe vessel is assessed to be quiet, while operating under electric
power, and potentially difficult to detect acoustically or by radar,b the
Navy concludes.

In the meantime, Montoya predicts that the jungle shipbuilders will continue
to perfect their craft. bThese efforts have been in the making for at least
17 years, since the time of Escobar,b he says. bIt would be realistic to
assume that there is a sub en route to Mexico or Europe at this very moment.b
Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus

Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus

Jim Popkin (jim.popkin at is a writer and former head of the NBC News
Investigative Unit.

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