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Drug traffickers move underwater

“Semi-submersibles" become the transportation of choice for drug smugglers.

They leave Colombia above water at night, with only about 30 percent of their cargo. Once on the open sea, smugglers add more cocaine, diesel fuel, water, food and other supplies, and often position rocks in the bow and stern to partially sink the craft and maintain ballast.

Inside, the living quarters are cramped. Typically, four or five crew members sleep on mattresses and live on a diet of canned food, crackers and energy drinks. With no bathroom, they must climb on top of the vessel to do their business.

“It’s very uncomfortable,” said Rodriguez, the Colombian Navy captain.

But it’s also effective. Rodriguez estimates that perhaps as few as 25 percent of all semi-submersibles leaving Colombia are seized.

Built to be disposable, the vessels are constructed with valves allowing them to be filled with water. Once the drugs are dropped off — or if the vessels are about to be seized — crew members can sink them within a few minutes.

Rodriguez recalled a case in January when the Colombian Navy spotted a semi-submersible near the Pacific island of Gorgona. Before Navy officers could arrest them, the traffickers sunk the vessel. The evidence was lost and all Rodriguez’s men could do was pass out life jackets to the smugglers and return them to the mainland.

Frustration over similar cases in international waters prompted the U.S. Congress last year to pass the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act. Co-sponsored by Lautenberg, the law mandates up to 15 years in prison for operators of semi-submersibles.

But just as authorities close one loophole, the drug traffickers seem to find others. Many anti-drug agents fear that smugglers will turn to full-fledged submarines, which would be even more difficult to spot.

In 2000, Colombian police found a massive, double-hulled submarine being built high in the Andes Mountains in a warehouse outside of Bogota. The 78-foot vessel, which was half built, was designed to descend to depths of more than 300 feet — to avoid sonar — as well as to travel 3,000 nautical miles and remain at sea for nearly two weeks.

"A submarine of this sophistication might be found in the world's leading navies," said John B. Brown III, then the acting DEA administrator, in a 2003 speech.

Another fear is that submarines and semi-submersibles could be used by terrorists. Adm. James Stravidis, who heads the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, recently outlined his concerns in a military journal.

“In simple terms, if drug cartels can ship up to 10 tons of cocaine in a semi-submersible,” Stravidis wrote, “they can clearly ship or ‘rent space’ to a terrorist organization for a weapon of mass destruction.”

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