The Hunt for White October

As Columbian traffickers continue their battle to smuggle cocaine onto the streets of America, a new front has developed in the war on drugs: below the surface of the ocean. An inside look at the world of drug subs, and the men trying to catch them.

There’s a popular saying in the port city of Buenaventura : “Those who talk are carried away by the tide.”

So it’s understandable that Diego Morales doesn’t want to reveal too many details about why he agreed to undertake such a perilous mission. All he will say is that his sister owed money to the wrong people. And owing money to the wrong people in Colombia’s new cocaine capital is a good way to end up dead.

“I needed a lot of pesos fast,” says Morales, 52, a sullen-looking fireplug of a man with a scar over his right eye.

So imagine the relief when the offer came: 30,000 American dollars, half now, the other half when the work was completed, a mind-boggling amount of money for someone used to living on the equivalent of $5 a day. And all he had to do, he was told, was go on a fishing trip.

It was August 2007 when Morales was picked up in a truck and taken to a damp estuary on the outskirts of Buenaventura, a vast, tangled network of rivers and inlets bordered by dense jungle. He glimpsed men wearing camouflage uniforms and cradling assault rifles guarding something half-submerged in the muddy creek. Morales was expecting a fishing boat, so he was puzzled to see a rusty cigar-shaped metal contraption about 60 feet long and eight feet wide. Suddenly, it dawned on him what it was—a narco-submarino, the latest weapon in the Colombian drug traffickers’ campaign to smuggle cocaine into North America. Morales had heard the stories about fishermen who went on one of these deadly vessels and never came back.

“I didn’t know that I was going to be traveling in a vessel underwater,” he says. “But I couldn’t say no. When someone takes you to one of these things and you say no, you can lose your life.”

The coke was already in place, five tons wrapped in plastic and tightly packed in the fore and aft. Morales was ordered on board, and he squeezed his thick frame through the hatch into the sub, where he saw three figures crouching in the shadows: the burly captain, Arturo Gonzalez; a mechanic named Arley Arraya whose face was blistered with nasty-looking burns; and a Mexican “load guard,” Luis Galindo, a 25-year-old with jug ears who was sent by the drug traffickers to makesure their precious cargo reached its intended destination.

The interior smelled of rusty iron, and the walls dripped with condensation. Morales had worked on some junkers in his nearly four decades as a fisherman, but nothing like this. “There was nothing inside except cocaine—no beds, no toilets, no kitchen,” says Morales. The Captain told him the mission would take about eight days. The assignment was to transport the contraband, worth about $100 million on the streets of America. Though the crew didn’t know it, they were headed some 1,700 miles to Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec. Morales’ job was to help Gonzalez and steer the mini-sub when the captain was asleep.

Ready to go, Captain Gonzalez started up the 350-horsepower diesel engine and rode the receding tide out of the estuary, puttering at a slow and steady five knots into the darkness of the Pacific.

* * * *

The frontline in the war on drugs has now shifted underwater. The U.S. Coast Guard calls these cocaine submarines SPSS s (selfpropelled semi-submersibles) because they don’t dive like military subs but glide just below the surface of the water. Sightings of the vessels have skyrocketed in the last year. Back in 2006, the Coast Guard detected only three; now they are spotting as many as 10 a month. Last year alone, more drug subs were seized at sea and on dry land than in the entire previous decade. According to the DE A, as much as a third of the cocaine that arrives on American shores comes via these sometimes comical conveyances. They’re usually bound for Mexico’s west coast, where the cocaine is off-loaded onto speedboats or fishing vessels and taken ashore, while the sub is scuttled.

“We can’t say exactly how many there are and how many are getting through,” says one DE A source. “But there’s a lot.”

Regarded as a joke by law enforcement when they first appeared in the early 1990s, the prototypes were jerry-built contraptions, difficult to steer and limited in how far they could travel and how much cocaine they could hold. Now, with a new fleet of faster, more seaworthy vessels that can travel as much as 2,000 miles without refueling, the U.S. government officially regards cocaine submarines as “an emerging threat.”

Commander Timothy Espinoza of the U.S. Coast Guard told a recent maritime security conference, “An SPSS can smuggle 10 to 12 tons of coke without detection. What else can they smuggle: money, guns, illegal aliens, terrorists, weapons of mass destruction?”

These subs cost upwards of $1 million, which sounds substantial until you realize that each vessel carries cocaine worth 100 times that amount. They’re built in secret jungle shipyards on the outskirts of Buenaventura, protected by armed guards and shielded from aerial surveillance by a thick canopy of trees and near constant cloud cover. While their construction may be a secret, their existence isn’t. Everybody in Buenaventura knows about the narco-subs. People line up at the dockside for a chance to work on one. For some in the slums, a job on one of these boats is like winning the lottery, a ticket out of deprivation.

* * * *

The first couple of days were intolerable. With nowhere to lie down, the crew had to sleep sitting up, eyes half-closed, leaning on one another’s shoulders. They survived on stale bread and canned tuna, and if they needed to go to the bathroom, the captain had to surface the vessel, and the crew would defecate with the fishes.

Worst of all was the punishing humidity. Morales had to keep pouring water over the engine to prevent it from overheating, releasing clouds of steam that turned the narrow space into a sauna. It was so hot the crew worked in their underwear. The ventilation system that poked up through the surface of the water didn’t provide nearly enough air in the cramped quarters for four people.

Morales’ main role was to steer the submarine when the captain was otherwise occupied. A compass sitting on top of a metal box guided the way, and Morales could see where the vessel was headed by looking through a narrow slit level with the ocean surface. But only the captain was allowed to communicate with the traffickers via the radio.

By the seventh day, the food and drinking water were running low. Things were officially desperate. Where were they going? The captain refused to say. The traffickers had sworn him to secrecy on pain of death.

Then, in the early evening, the Mexican load guard popped his head up through the hatch to get a breath of fresh air and looked up to see a propeller-powered military plane circling overhead. He rushed back below and told his comrades:

The captain turned off the engine, fearful that the U.S. plane might fire at them. And then the sub started to leak. Throughout the voyage, Gonzalez had to stop periodically and surface to let Morales pump out puddles of water. But this time the Pacific Ocean roared into the interior and soon the panicked crew was up to its knees, frantically operating bilge pumps in a futile attempt to halt the tide. They thought about abandoning ship, but were worried about being eaten by sharks. So instead they donned their life vests and clambered onto the deck, where they waved T-shirts in the air in a frantic attempt to attract the attention of the military plane. What if the Americans couldn’t reach them in time? Galindo the load guard predicted that they were all going to die.

On the evening of August 20, 2007, the USS De Wert out of Mayflower, Florida was on a routine counter-narcotics patrol in the eastern Pacific about 300 miles southwest of the Mexican-Guatemalan border when the call came in. A U.S. Navy marine patrol airplane had just spotted a suspicious vessel about 35 miles away. “It looks like a fucking submarine,” one of the surprised Navy airmen blurted over the radio.

The captain ordered the De Wert to change course to intercept the SPSS . Below deck, LED T 102, a U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement deployment team led by Petty Officer Nathan Fornicola, was preparing to conduct what is called an ROV (right of visit). At 26, Fornicola had six years service with the Coast Guard. He had joined the service two years out of high school in San Morales and now led a group of guys, many of whom were not long out of high school themselves.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., Fornicola and his five-man team dropped over the side of the De Wert and into a high-speed inflatable boat headed for the target zone. The Navy patrol plane flew overhead to guide them. About a mile from the vessel’s last reported position, they saw a faint light flickering in the distance.

As they closed in on the position, they noticed four people in the water, all of them wearing life jackets, one of them holding a flashlight. Their vessel was gone but the crew was still very much alive.

Officer Steven Lutz shouted in Spanish. “What happened to your boat?”

“It sank,” a voice in the darkness replied.

With rifles and side arms trained on them, the survivors were instructed to swim to the boat one at a time. Once safely onboard, Fornicola told Lutz to ask the crew members where they come from. Three said they were Colombian, the other said he was Mexican. Fornicola noticed that the Colombians were nervous. Not so for the Mexican.

“Relax,” he said in English.

Asked what happened to their vessel, Galindo stamped his foot on the deck and said, “There was a crack in the boat.”

The sub crew had spent about a half-hour in the frigid water, but they looked in fairly good physical shape, so Fornicola brought the survivors aboard the De Wert. The whole crew felt relieved. They were alive, and as far as they knew, they were in the clear, the evidence 3,000 feet below on the ocean floor.

After securing Morales and his pals in the ship’s brig, Fornicola, accompanied by Officer Lutz and Officer Michael Karnoff, headed back out to see if there was any debris left behind. Karnoff, 30, the oldest member of the team, was at the front of the speedboat when he first noticed a plastic water bottle bobbing on the water. Fornicola’s ears pricked up at the news. Then Karnoff spotted what looked like a plastic-covered brick, then another, and another, followed by a burlap sack that contained what looked like 20 individually wrapped kilos of cocaine. Two hour later, two small boats laden with 11 bales and 60 bricks—five tons in all—headed back to the De Wert.

It was a big win for the U.S. Coast Guard, the sort of bust that garners headlines, which it did on CNN and other news outlets. Fornicola and his team had managed to retrieve enough drugs to send Morales and company to federal prison for long stretches. Still, it nagged at him that they had failed to capture the vessel before it sank. Every time the Coast Guard tried to board one of these subs, the crews would scuttle them, sending boat and cocaine to the bottom of the ocean. If the Coast Guard could actually capture one and thus be able to examine the technology that powers them, it would shed some light on the drug traffickers’ tactics: how they communicate with each other, how they construct these subs. They might even be able to discover who was building them.

With the demise of the Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s, some observers incorrectly predicted the beginning of the end of the Andean cocaine trade. By 2000 it was practically impossible to ship coke of any great weight through the Caribbean, so drug traffickers turned to Colombia’s untamed Pacific coastline. Instead of declining, cocaine production boomed as the role of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by their Spanish acronym FARC, took on a new importance. The FARC needed the money to buy weapons and to continue to finance their half-century-long struggle against the Colombian government. Now they took on a more active role, not just proitviding protection but also assembling a small navy of drug vessels to transport the contraband on the high seas.

“The FARC became the FedEx of the cocaine business,” says Daniel Castillo, a Tampa-based defense lawyer who has represented a number of foreign maritime cocaine smugglers caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. “They don’t own the product, but make money by ensuring that it’s delivered to the right address.”

But the FARC had a problem. The Colombian navy had Buenaventura blockaded. And even if a FARC drug boat made it into international waters, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were there waiting. A multipronged crackdown on maritime cocaine trafficking called Operation Panama Express was eating into the narco-terrorists’ profit margins. “The success of Operation Panama Express in stemming cocaine trafficking over the water is a big part of the reason why the Colombians went underwater,” says Castillo.

The FARC turned to a shadowy Colombian man nicknamed Captain Nemo for help. Enrique Portocarrero was a shrimp fisherman by trade who once worked at a commercial dry dock, where he learned the rudiments of boat design. Short and squat, with the crumpled face of a bulldog, he owned a shipyard about 20 miles south of Buenaventura, where, according to Colombian law enforcement, he invented a new generation of narco-subs—sleek, V-shaped fiberglass boats specially designed for stealth. The only thing visible above the water line was the top of the pilot house, along with the goose-neck-shaped ventilation and exhaust pipes which gave the vessels the appearance of something dreamed up by Jules Verne. Each boat was custom-designed to carry a specific load. A key feature of the boats were the scuttle valves that Portocarrero installed which enabled the crew to flood and sink the vessel along with the incriminating evidence if they were stopped.

Cocaine mini-subs are an old idea updated, and Captain Nemo’s were fairly easy to construct. Portocarrero would build a ship’s mold, put the fiberglass in place, buy a diesel engine, and procure navigation and communication devices. Though the design was simple, the boats took a long time to construct, three months or more, mainly because Portocarrero had to stagger the deliveries of materials to avoid being caught. Captain Nemo’s subs were ideally suited to their task. For the time being, though, Portocarrero remained something of a mystery. Law enforcement didn’t know where or from whom he got his materials, nor how many subs he was capable of churning out. If the authorities could just get their hands on one of his vessels, they would achieve a rousing victory in the war on drugs. They might disrupt the supply lines, halt the trade at the source, maybe even get Captain Nemo himself.

A little over a year after Diego Morales and his crew were apprehended in the USS De Wert incident, the Coast Guard received an urgent bulletin from Operation Panama Express saying that a suspicious vessel had left Buenaventura on August 31, 2008 at around nine at night heading north-northwest. Rather than relying on luck to stumble across one of these cocaine submarines in the vastness of the Pacific, this time the Coast Guard had actual advance intelligence. If the operation was planned correctly, they would be able to seize one of Captain Nemo’s vessels before it sank.

Just after midnight on September 17, 2008, Petty Officer Alberto Delgado was relaxing in his bunk on the USS McInerney, when he received the word that he has been waiting for all day. The SPSS had been spotted 350 miles off the coast of Guatemala. Delgado stood in the door of the cramped sleeping quarters and told the members of his crew the good news: “Wake up. We found it.” The five other members of the crew pulled themselves out of their bunks and sprung to attention. Then they went over the plan of attack.

Delgado had 12 years’ experience in the Coast Guard. Over the years he’d boarded hundreds of vessels looking for drugs: trawlers, cargo ships, tankers, you name it. He was proud of the fact that he’d helped seize in total about 16 tons of cocaine worth nearly $300 million.

But that night, equally as important as the cocaine, was the vessel itself. Federal lawyers back in Tampa were having difficulty prosecuting the operators of the SPSS ’s without the vessel as evidence.

In the predawn hours Delgado’s team headed out to capture the SPSS. It was quiet in their small, inflatable boat, the atmosphere a mixture of adrenaline and anticipation.

It took nearly an hour to get to the sub. The only thing Officer Delgado could see through his night-vision goggles was the white foam coming out of the back of the vessel. The sub was thrashing through the water at 10 to 12 knots, a steady clip for a SPSS . Removing his goggles, Delgado instructed one of his team to fire a 40 mm White Star flare. They could now see the strange-looking, goose-neck-shaped exhaust pipes that poked out from the top of the 60-foot sub. The Coast Guard boat pulled up parallel, and Delgado and two of his team jumped onto the top of the moving sub. The deck was slick with seawater, and Delgado had trouble keeping his footing. Once aboard, Delgado, a 9 mm pistol in one hand, used his other to bang on the hull.

Policia. Policia. Americano. Americano!” he shouted.

Suddenly, the sub lurched sharply into reverse, the engine dipping in the ocean, the bow rising out of the water like a surfacing whale.

“Hold on to the pipes,” Delgado shouted at the other guardsmen.

“Watch out for the propellers!” He worried that his team might slide down the slippery deck and be mangled.

The sub then started making erratic side-to-side movements, trying to shake the guardsmen off the hull. The vessel began to sink: six inches at first, then a foot, then three, close to waist high. Somebody inside was trying to wash the Coast Guard into the ocean.

Delgado could see people carrying knives moving around inside through the porthole and shouted at them to halt.

Para el bote. Para el bote.

It seemed to take forever, but after about four or five minutes, the sub crew complied with Delgado’s command. The steel and fiberglass vessel glided to a halt, the hatch slowly opened, and one of the crew popped up his head. Delgado ordered him back inside at gunpoint. He knew it was a trick: Three crew members would squeeze themselves one at a time through the narrow hatch, giving a fourth member enough time to sink the vessel. Not this time. Delgado climbed down into the sub and spotted one of the crew in the engine room preparing to open the scuttle valves. He pointed a gun at the engineer and told him to stop what he was doing and put his hands in the air.

Then the groggy crew members—three of whom were asleep when the Coast Guard came calling—were taken outside and ordered to sit atop the sub with their hands on their heads. After being patted down and searched for weapons, they were handcuffed and told they were being detained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

While the smugglers were taken back to the USS McInerney, Delgado stayed with the sub. Battered but relieved, he took a deep breath and headed inside. The interior smelled like a mix of diesel, salt, and dirty feet, and there was a foot of water on the floor. Another few minutes and the sub would have sunk. But the living conditions weren’t bad as he expected. The crew had plenty to eat, and there was on-board air-conditioning and bunk beds. Despite being at sea two weeks, the quarters were surprisingly tidy. After making sure the vessel was seaworthy, Delgado started to count the coke. There was a lot, maybe as much as seven tons.

Even more surprising to Delgado was the technical intricacy of the vessel. Captain Nemo had done good work. There was a powerful longwave radio, a GPS device, and a satellite telephone. A mariner’s compass sitting on top of a metal box guided the way. The only retro detail was the wooden steering wheel, which looked like something you’d find on the wall in a kitschy seafood restaurant.

The McInerney towed the coke sub to the Costa Rican Coast Guard base of Punta Arenas en route to Key West, where the vessel would be taken apart by investigators. Hopefully they would be able to glean valuable information about how the drug traffickers communicated with one another, how they navigated the vessel, and maybe even proof of who was building these things and where they got their materials, critical advance intelligence that would help the Coast Guard to better plan to interdict these coke subs in the future.

“We were very proud, very excited,” says Delgado. “It was the first of the new generation of semi-subs ever caught by U.S. government.”

* * * *

And what of the people of Buenaventura? Security for ordinary residents has improved somewhat in the last year thanks to President Alvaro Uribe, who dispatched 2,000 marines and Special Forces trained in urban combat to patrol the slums. The city is hardly calm, but the crackdown is having an effect. Murder rates have dropped by 70 percent since 2006. And the narco-terrorists are feeling the pinch. The St. Petersburg Times reported last November that FARC commanders in Buenaventura were having trouble paying their members because cocaine revenues have been cut in half.

In the meantime, the DEA, in cooperation with the Colombian equivalent of the FBI, is going after the sub builders. In December the culmination of a joint three-year investigation led to the arrest of Buenaventura’s very own Captain Nemo at his home, where police found $200,000 hidden in the spare tire of his car. The next day armed drug agents descended on Portocarrero’s secret shipyard and demolished two of the vessels. Enrique Portocarrero is expected to be extradited to the United States to stand trial in Tampa. What hasn’t improved, and what is unlikely to improve anytime soon, are the appalling living conditions that drive the desperate to risk their lives. As far as real estate goes, for 80 percent of the population it’s still hell with an ocean view.

“I’ve personally heard DEA agents down in Buenaventura say that if they had to grow up in these types of conditions,” says a Spanish interpreter who works with American law enforcement, “they’d be the first one to get on one of these subs.”

Meanwhile, Diego Morales is in federal prison in Florida for the next eight years, thankful that his sister is still alive, though he misses her. He rues the day he ever set foot on the cocaine bathtub.

He sighs in Spanish, “Fueron los peors siete días de mi vida.”

“It was the worst seven days of my life.”