Bahia Malaga – A state-of-the-art narco-submarine seized last year in a dense mangrove near the Ecuador-Colombia border is one of the main attractions in a museum of sorts that has slowly been growing in Bahía Málaga, a remote outpost on the Colombian Pacific coast.
The unusual gallery, which has taken root in Bahía Málaga’s naval base, accommodates a number of impounded vessels used to smuggle large amounts of cocaine into the U.S.: From fishing boats used to run marijuana in the 1970s and 1980s to an entire fleet of manned and unmanned semisubmersibles.
The narco-submarine, the crown jewel of the display, is a diesel electric-powered submersible with a 8 ton capacity that somehow was built right there in the middle of the jungle. Its discovery last year by Ecuadorean police, before it could make its maiden voyage, spurred talks of a new era in drug trafficking and the lengths smugglers are willing to take nowadays to move their product.
The sophisticated 100-feet-long vessel is equipped not only with a periscope but an air-conditioning system and even indoor plumbing. The submarine — technically a “snorkel sub” — can hit speeds of 12-15 knots and travel 8,000 miles. The Drug Enforcement Agency says it was built for trans-oceanic drug trafficking.
“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,” said DEA’s Chief of Intelligence Rodney Benson in Senate testimony last year.
Next in line among vehicles that have left a mark in the drug trafficking industry are the semi-submersibles, which glide just below the water’s surface leaving no wake and a weak radar signature.
Over the years authorities have impounded 23 of these semi-submersibles, which according to DEA estimates can be built with less than $1 million. Colombian Capt. Nelson Hernandez said to the Christian Science Monitor that 96 of these have been detected so far over the years, while “countless others” have been scuttled by traffickers to keep from being caught.
Other pieces of interest among the Bahía Málaga collection are a few unmanned submersibles, steel containers that can be towed behind any type of vessel and can be conveniently cut loose if the traffickers suspect they are about to be raided. Yet the technology is such that it allows smugglers to recover it days or weeks later.
Also notable is one of the most recent innovations: drop boxes that can be packed with the drug of choice and buried on a beach so there’s never a face-to-face meeting between dealer and client.
One only has to wonder what is next in the narco-creativity box of surprises.
“This is an example of the evolution of criminal innovation,” said Capt. Hernández. “But it’s also an example of the way we’re evolving. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see all these vessels here.”