TAMPA, FL -- Semi-submarines are plying the eastern Pacific and Caribbean packed with tons of cocaine.
Just a few years ago a novelty, the vessels, which travel 99 percent below the surface of the sea, are becoming the method of choice for drug lords to smuggle cocaine from Colombia, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Ruddy, who oversees "Operation Panama Express," an international drug investigation headquartered in Tampa.
The vessels are becoming so common, a bill has been introduced in Congress to make it a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison just to be on one, regardless of whether there are drugs onboard. That's because authorities think the only purpose of the vessels is to smuggle drugs.
"This is our new challenge in the maritime counter-drug mission," Ruddy said.
Today, the bleary-eyed crew of the fifth semi-submersible interdicted by investigators appeared in U.S. District Court here. Crews of four other vessels interdicted since 2006 have all pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Those who have been sentenced have received prison terms ranging from nine years to 17 years and six months.
The latest crew was aboard the third semi-sub interdicted this year. The 50-to-60-foot vessel was spotted June 16 by a Marine patrol unit in the eastern Pacific north west of the Ecuador-Colombia border. By the time the Coast Guard arrived, the crew members were in the water and the vessel was sinking, Ruddy said. Guardsmen managed to get some bales of cocaine out of the semi-sub before it slipped into the sea.
Crew members told agents the vessel had six to eight tons of cocaine onboard, Ruddy said.
So far, the Tampa federal courthouse is the only place in the U.S. where semi-sub crewmen have been prosecuted, Ruddy said, because the interdictions have all been made by Panama Express investigators.
In addition to the five crews being prosecuted, Ruddy said, the investigators spotted between four and six other semi-subs by air in the last year, but by the time officials got close enough, the vessels were sunk. Authorities were left to pluck the crew from the water and, with no evidence of drugs, return the men to their home countries.
The "floating coffins," as Ruddy described them, are navigated by crews of four or five men, almost always poor Colombian or Mexican fishermen who agree to take the treacherous voyage under horrific conditions because the pay "" about $30,000 for a trip "" is a way out of poverty.
The vessels have no bathroom accommodations or room to stand up, said Ruddy, who described the interiors as like the inside of a sewer tunnel.
Lawyer Danny Castillo represented Dagoberto Sarrias-Boya, a crewman aboard a semi-sub interdicted Aug. 20 in the Eastern Pacific 300 nautical miles southwest of the Mexico-Guatemala border. The 51-year-old fisherman with a first-grad education was earning about $200 a month, living in impoverished conditions when a friend told him a way to earn some real money.
Conditions inside during the trek were terrible. An engine was smoking, the ventilation inside was poor and it was difficult to breathe. .
Had authorities not found the vessel, Castillo said, the crew may have perished.
Now, Sarrias-Boya is serving 11 years, three months in federal prison.
"These guys are just expendable," said Mary Mills, a federal public defender who represented the captain of another sub and many crew members aboard other smuggling vessels "These guys in Colombia that are sending them, they don't care if they live or die."
Vessels More Sophisticated
And even though the pay seems huge to the poor crew members, it's "a pittance," compared to the worth of the cocaine, Mills said.
Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy said the drug lords make about $15,000 a kilo for cocaine. One of the subs can carry 15,000 kilos. The pay of a crewman equals the cost of two to three kilos, he said. "In return for risking your life, you get three-ten thousandth of the haul."
Defense attorneys are frustrated, however, because federal judges in Tampa typically refuse to hand down lower sentences based on the fact that crew members play a low role in the larger drug smuggling operation. As Ruddy sees it, though the crewmen are poor and uneducated, they play a vital role. Without them, the cocaine couldn't come to the United States.
"It's blood money," U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich told Castillo's client when she sentenced him, "money earned brining harm to another country and to the children of another country. That is why we have to deal with it so harshly, sir."
The vessels are becoming more sophisticated, manufactured of carbon fiber instead of steel, self-propelled where they were once pulled by ships. Carrying from three to 12 tons of cocaine, they are equipped with as many as three scuttle valves, which crew members open to sink the vessel when they're spotted by authorities, according to Ruddy.
Authorities estimate the vessels cost $500,000 to build, Ruddy said.
About a foot and a half of the vessels poke out of the sea, a surface area of about 4 by 5 feet. They leave very minimal wakes. The subs used to travel about 8 knots, and now are reaching speeds of 12 to 14 knots, Ruddy said.
They range in size from about 45 feet long and about 5 feet wide to about 60 feet long and 10 to 12 feet wide. The larger vessels can carry 10 to 12 tons of cocaine.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.