The smuggler’s art

By Joel Miller

What do you do when the law won’t let you have what you want? Many people turn to smuggling.

Some smuggling is mundane – illegally buying booze or cigarettes online to get around various state restrictions or taxes. Some, on the other hand, is pretty swashbuckling – as with Colombian drug traffickers’ “go-fast” boats.

Go-fasts are fitted with multiple motors, can skip across the water at 60-plus mph and carry as much as 2.5 tons of cocaine and heroin. As the Christian Science Monitor reported last week, their fiberglass hulls make them hard to see with radar, and dull-blue paint makes them nearly invisible to the naked eye.

“You can be in a customs launch, and the boat you’re waiting to intercept can pass you 50 meters [150 feet] away,” complained a Colombian intelligence officer. “You can hear it, but you don’t see a thing.”

Once out of the reach of authorities, “Depending on their drugs’ destination, smugglers dump them on an isolated beach, hand them over to local fishermen, or leave them floating at sea for a later pickup. The contraband is then shipped to the U.S. mainland in freight containers, or carried on small planes or commercial airline flights,” explains reporter Mark Hodgson.

The job is certainly dangerous. Traveling in an open boat with 12-foot waves is enough to make a grown man soil his seat. But as a mechanic of the boats and whose own brother died piloting one said, “You have to die sometime. And for that much money, it’s worth the risk.”

How much? Ten grand for a long trip. “In this town of ramshackle houses, it is easy to imagine why a boatman might swap shrimp fishing for drug running,” Hodgson concluded. As the money increases, the risk-aversion decreases.

This puts the law at a big disadvantage, as megatrafficker Luis “Kojak” Garc?a explained some years back in “The Cocaine Wars”:

    There are places [along the coast] where the water is two feet deep and less, and the channels that you have to use are unmarked. Now, a good doper knows those channels because he studies them. He’s also making 10, 12, 15,000 dollars – it depends on the load – for four hours’ work, and for that kind of money he’s expected to take the risk of getting it wrong. The guy chasing him is making maybe a hundred bucks a shift, on which he’s going to pay tax, and if he hits that sandbank at 60 miles an hour he isn’t going to collect his pension because he’s going to be dead. Now, you’re in the Customs’ boat heading for that sandbank: Which way do you want to push the throttle?

It’s those sorts of incentives that keep traffickers ahead of the anti-narcotics game – not only in willingness to take risks and push the limits, but because of the big loot, also in upgrading the tools needed to pull it off successfully day in and out.

In 2000, Colombian authorities found a 100-foot submarine under construction in a warehouse in the Andes. When completed, the $25 million vessel could carry 10 tons of narcotics.

Colombians had used smaller minisubs in the past, but this was a big step up. With its double hull, protected propeller and diving stabilizers, the sub was designed to descend as deep as 325 feet, which according to Capt. Ismael Idrobo, projects director for the Colombian Naval Academy, is deep enough to duck most sonar. The sub could stay at sea nearly two weeks and travel some 2,000 nautical miles.

“The guy who designed it knew exactly what he was doing,” said Idrobo. “It took imagination and a lot of experience.” Elsewhere, he admitted, “It was shocking to me to see how much technology illicit money can buy.”

Even worse for drug warriors, clues onsite tipped authorities to a long-suspected relationship between drug runners and the Russian mob.

“That partnership worries security experts, who fear Colombian drug traffickers may be getting more than hardware from their Russian friends,” explains Los Angles Times reporter Juanita Darling. “They could be buying intelligence and counterintelligence services from spies who learned their trade in the KGB …”

The Colombians had tried to purchase an even bigger, used Russian sub a few years before. The deal fell through, but the plan was to use the torpedo tubes to blast containers of drugs to the surface – traffickers would then rendezvous in speedboats and take them ashore.

“The drug smugglers make so much money, they are going to be on the cutting edge of technology,” says a U.S. official involved in anti-narcotics efforts, quoted by Hodgson. “Whatever’s the biggest and the fastest, they’re going to have it – before we do.”

One problem faced by those trying to stop smugglers is trying to battle the market. It’s hard enough with cigarette taxes. It’s nigh impossible when the stakes are higher.


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