At $2 million each, subs become the drug transport of choice

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 18, 2008 

MEXICO CITY — A tip from the United States led to this week's daring high seas seizure off Mexico's Pacific Coast of a drug-laden semi-submersible submarine-like vessel, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday.

Speaking to a small group of U.S. media in Mexico City after spending the morning with Mexican national security officials, Chertoff confirmed that intelligence gathered by the U.S. government led to the seizure of the vessel off the coast of Oaxaca state on Wednesday.

"I praised them and congratulated them for the seizure of the semi-submersible sub," said Chertoff, calling the action "a great example of cooperation, between our ability to share intelligence about the vessel and their skill in fast-roping their marines from helicopters and being able to actually seize the vessel before it was sunk."

The vessel, which looks like a cross between a submarine and a cigarette boat, was towed into the Pacific port of Salinas Cruz on Friday, where authorities removed what they said was 5.8 tons worth of cocaine. The drugs were wrapped in 257 plastic packages.

Chertoff shot down a story by Mexico's El Universal newspaper that cited a classified Drug Enforcement Administration report alleging that Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel has since 2005 been sending gunmen to Iran via Venezuela for explosives and weapons training. That story cited an unidentified State Department official saying that sometimes these drug henchmen use Venezuelan passports. Chertoff said he knew of no such link between the Mexican cartels, Venezuela and Iran. The Iranian Embassy in Mexico City formally protested to Mexico over the report, the Mexican television network Televisa reported Friday.

But even without the Iran-Venezuela connection, there was little doubt the capture of the sub was a sign of something more.

Jose Ruiz, a spokesman from the U.S. military's Southern Command in Miami, said at least 40 semi-submersible subs have been spotted by the United States and allies since 2006, mostly hugging the Pacific Coast of Central America or Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard seized one back in November 2006.

And Department of Homeland Security spokesman William Knocke reported that drug trafficking organizations had used the subs, known as SPSS, for self-propelled semi-submersibles, at least 45 times in the first six months of 2008 to transport cocaine."SPSS now account for 32 percent of all maritime cocaine flow" between Latin America and the United States," he said. "Many SPSS are built in sites in Colombia several miles upstream in river tributaries under the cover of jungle canopy."

The pronounced increase in the use of semi-submersible vessels by Colombian drug traffickers points to the success of stepped up anti-drug efforts in the Caribbean Sea. Traffickers have been forced to move drug loads via Pacific routes that involve more dangerous, easier to spot travel in open seas.

Wednesday's seizure stood out because Mexico was able to grab the green makeshift wood-and-fiberglass submarine before it was scuttled, providing a better sense of how traffickers are designing these odd drug-transport ships more commonly used to ferry drugs in Colombian jungle rivers. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates the cost of building one of the semi-submersible vessels at $2 million. Fifteen have been seized, 13 of those by Colombia. An unknown number are reported to have been sunk.

"I think they are fabricated in South America by the people who are using them," Chertoff said of the fiberglass vessels that are mostly submerged when under power and reportedly can travel underwater for short periods of time before rising to take in more oxygen. "I don't know whose bright idea it was, but they don't completely submerge. It's designed to ride low enough that it has very low radar signature."

Four Colombian crewmen seized on the sub earlier in the week said they were forcibly placed on the vessel that had apparently sailed from near Colombia's port of Buenaventura bound for the Pacific state of Sinaloa in Mexico. They claimed that their vessel was guided by remote, through the use of satellite technology.

Chertoff declined to discuss how the U.S. intelligence was obtained or any other possible U.S. role in the unusual high seas arrests.

"We shared information with the Mexican navy but the Mexican navy acted alone in actually executing the seizure. It was their marines, their helicopters and their naval vessels that captured the submarine," he said.

ON THE WEB

To view an Aljazaeera English-language video of the seizure of the vessel, go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdI1y4sdPZE

To see the Coast Guard press release, with photos, on the 2006 seizure of a semi-submersible craft see:

http://media.mcclatchydc.com/smedia/2008/07/18/17/Hall-sub.source.prod_affiliate.91.pdf

For a fact sheet on the Mexican drug-smuggling submarine, see:

http://media.mcclatchydc.com/smedia/2008/07/18/17/Hall-SPSS-factsheet.source.prod_affiliate.91.pdf

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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