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Jul. 15 2010 - 12:04 pm | 227 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

We all live in … a narco-submarine

The narco-submarine in its mangrove "shipyard"

Police in Ecuador recently seized a 30-meter (98-foot) fully submersible submarine built, the authorities say, to carry cocaine tonnage across a swath of the Pacific to Mexico.

The DEA called it “the first seizure of a clandestinely constructed fully operational submarine built to facilitate trans-oceanic drug trafficking.”

It was among the most sophisticated narco-submarines ever discovered by authorities. According to the DEA, which assisted in the bust, it has an extra-strength hull, can carry a half-dozen crew members, and was outfitted with periscope, climate control, a hybrid electric-diesel engine (eco-friendly!) and state-of-the-art navigation tools.

An AFP story quotes Joel Loaiza, head of Ecuador’s drug police, who says the “narco-submarine” only required some sealing to the hatch area before it was seaworthy. Loaiza said the sub was set to sail for Mexico, with up to 12 tons of cocaine. It was found in a coastal area of Ecuador near the border with Colombia.

But the most interesting information in the many stories on this narco-sub, which made headlines throughout Latin America when it was found earlier this month, was the estimated cost of the underwater ship.

Loaiza, for one, put the submarine’s price tag at $4 million. Consider first that the submarine can carry up to 12 metric tons of coke. Then consider that the United Nations’ World Drug Report put the wholesale price of cocaine at $7,800 per kilo in Mexico, which means about $8 million for a metric ton (the report’s estimates are for 2004, so if anything, today’s price is probably higher).

Images - DEA

And so that translates to (12 metric tons x $8 million) or $96 million in cargo for each of the submarine’s trips from Ecuador to Mexico. Even with the cost of a crew, and taking into account that the cocaine might have cost a good bit to produce or acquire, the folks who financed the narco-submarine certainly could justify the $4 million expense, which they would more than recoup with just one successful shipment.

These numbers back up DEA Andean regional director Jay Bergman’s warning that narco-submarines present a huge, looming challenge for marine interdiction of international drug trafficking. In the DEA release, Bergman said that over the years drug traffickers have moved from souped-up speedboats; to surface-hugging, radar-evading ships; to “parasitic” vessels designed to cling to the bottom of bigger ships; and now, to submarines.

The Ecuadorean 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,” he said.

Though less sophisticated narco-submarines have been around for at least a decade, it appears the serious technology for trans-oceanic sub-surface prowlers is out of the bag, and the narcos now have the ocean depths as their new frontier.

Given the mind-boggling profits involved, it is surprising that more of these trans-oceanic narco-submarines have not been discovered, but probably they will be.

Inside the sub (enough room to avoid head-bumping)


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  1. collapse expand

    The cost of transporting it is built in to the US street price. What happens when it’s no longer a human crew, but a remote one? $4M will also buy a lot of electronics in a small unmanned ship.

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    Readers, thanks for your eyeball time, please send tips, corrections, complaints, rants, etc. My email is ballve [at] gmail.com. I was born in Buenos Aires and raised there and in Atlanta, Mexico City and Caracas. I've written and reported on Latin America for almost a dozen years. I started out as an Associated Press reporter and editor in the agency’s Brazil and Caribbean bureaus. In 2007 I co-founded El Sol de San Telmo, a community newspaper in Buenos Aires. I am now a contributing editor for the nonprofit New America Media, Americas correspondent for Amsterdam-based Research World magazine (publication of the international association of market and public opinion researchers), and a 2010-2011 Lemann Fellow at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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