Cocaine Smugglers Using High-Tech Boats
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Nov 7, 8:07 AM (ET)
By ANDREW SELSKY
TUMACO, Colombia (AP) - Slicing through slate-gray waters along the shores of Colombia, a Coast Guard vessel slips into a mangrove-fringed inlet, on the hunt for speedboats loaded with two or three tons of cocaine and ready to tear full-tilt to coastlines hundreds of miles away.
Missions like this one along the perilous shores of southwest Colombia are vital as authorities grapple with the latest twist in the clandestine world of drug smuggling.
Cocaine traffickers have largely abandoned planes for boats to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to Central America and Mexico for onward shipment to the United States, according to interviews with officials and a review of government reports by The Associated Press. One U.N. document estimates 90 percent of smuggled cocaine now moves by sea to North America.
The transport of choice: so-called "go-fasts," whose crews are the equivalent of the rumrunners of the Prohibition era - only these modern-day outlaws have global positioning systems, satellite telephones and custom-made 800-horsepower fiberglass boats that can do 50 mph.
Traffickers have set up a seamless cocaine delivery system that stretches thousands of miles from the coca fields of Colombia, the world's main producer, to the cities of the United States, the world's top consumer.
After the coca is processed in jungle labs into cocaine, the drugs are loaded onto go-fasts, eventually to cross the U.S.-Mexico border hidden in tractor-trailers and other vehicles.
Each cocaine-laden vehicle is a proverbial needle in a haystack for U.S. Customs inspectors who are coping with thousands of trucks that carry Mexican exports across the 1,900-mile (3,040-kilometer border each day.
Launching from Colombia's isolated Pacific coast and the more populated Caribbean shores, the go-fasts transport well over 220 tons of cocaine a year, most of it bound for the United States, according to U.N. reports.
Maritime cocaine seizures have correspondingly skyrocketed. Ninety percent of smuggled cocaine now moves by sea, most by go-fasts, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in its latest report. More than three-quarters of the 386 tons of cocaine destined for North America - most from Colombia - passed through Central America and Mexico in 2003, the report said.
The Colombian Navy, often operating with Colombian armed forces or other countries, seized more than 100 tons from January to mid-October, compared with 85 tons in all of 2004, then a record, according to Adm. Jairo Pena, commander of the Pacific fleet.
Since each load is worth millions of dollars, crews often scuttle the go-fast, its equipment and $36,000 outboard engines after delivery and take commercial flights home, say Colombian and U.S. authorities.
"For them, it's not a great expense," said Vice Adm. Guillermo Barrera, the Colombian Navy's chief of operations.
The Pacific coast of southwest Colombia, running along the edge of coca-growing Narino state, is a drug smugglers' dream.
Peasant farmers inland harvest the green leaves of the coca bush in plantations controlled by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or their paramilitary foes. The leaves are converted into coca paste and then purified in clandestine labs into cocaine, which is hidden near the coast.
The coast, penetrated by few roads, is bisected by inland waterways, allowing traffickers to sail near the shore for more than 100 miles without having to reveal themselves in the open sea.
Raids in the area this year provide a glimpse into the scale of operations:
- In March, the Coast Guard seized several go-fasts and even a small submarine that were being built at a clandestine jungle factory.
- Two months later, the Coast Guard netted 16.5 tons of cocaine and five go-fasts in a raid at the mouth of the Mira River, located 21 miles southwest of Tumaco, Narino's biggest coastal town.
- On Sept. 10, rebels ambushed a boat on the Mira River carrying a government drug-raiding party, killing three marines and two officials from the district attorney's office.
"This is lawless country," said Coast Guard Lt. Santiago Vasquez as he surveyed the coast - a green carpet of jungle broken by soaring sand-colored boulders. Pelicans resting on the ocean swells took flight as Vasquez's patrol boat sped past.
When his boat nosed into an inlet during a recent mission, its wake caused half-submerged mangroves to sway and dance. Vasquez's men, armed with Israeli-made Galil assault rifles, saw nothing but a dense green thicket. No go-fasts here.
Later, they patrolled the bay that fronts Tumaco - where two men were shot dead execution-style on the main street the previous evening - and spotted a wooden launch carrying a load of 55-gallon barrels.
Go-fasts use a lot of gas. Even with two dozen 55-gallon plastic barrels of fuel on board, they often need to refuel at sea en route to Central America and Mexico.
"A go-fast is a gas tank used to transport cocaine," Barrera told AP, adding that some go-fasts rendezvous with fishing boats at sea and transfer their loads of cocaine.
A blue light atop the cabin of Vasquez's patrol boat was flicked on, police-car style, as the Coast Guard vessel approached the launch, piloted by a scowling man wearing a T-shirt, jeans and blue cap.
A Coast Guardsman in a bulletproof vest under his lifejacket boarded the launch. The barrels were empty, but the man lacked registration papers. The Coast Guard impounded the boat, parking it at their base in Tumaco alongside two confiscated go-fasts and a fishing boat recently seized with three tons of cocaine aboard.
"Obviously that guy was headed out to get fuel for a go-fast operation," Vasquez said. "We have just delivered an indirect blow to drug trafficking."
Go-fast crews usually number four: the pilot/navigator, two loaders and a representative of the owners of the cocaine keeping watch on their investment, Barrera said. True to their name, they go as fast as possible on the 1,100-mile trip from Tumaco to Guatemala.
Often painted blue to blend in with the sea, these are no-frills craft with low profiles to elude radar and forward hulls packed with cocaine.
If a surveillance plane spots a go-fast, the crew kill the engines to erase any telltale wake, cover the driver's compartment with a blue tarp and wait for the plane to leave or night to fall, then resume course.
Near Ocos, Guatemala - a major cocaine debarkation point at the Mexican border - fishermen string lights on their boats so go-fasts won't slam into them while shooting across the waves at night.
Traffickers favor Ocos because of its isolated lagoon. From there smugglers cross the boulder-strewn Suchiate River into Mexico largely unimpeded because of a scant police presence, according to U.S. drug agents in Guatemala.
The cocaine is also stashed in trucks and cars and driven through official border crossings into Mexico - in San Marcos province in southwestern Guatemala and as far away as Huehuetenango in the northwest. From there, Mexican cartels that control distribution in many U.S. cities usually take over the load.
In the 1980s and 1990s, traffickers relied heavily on airplanes but then ran up against improved radar surveillance. Another advantage of the go-fasts: They can hold three tons of cocaine, a load that only larger planes can carry.
The maritime smuggling routes have made Central America the world's biggest transshipment point for cocaine. The flow of cocaine through Central America increased from just under 55 tons in 2000 to 256 tons last year, according to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Wrapped in bales, that's enough to fill about 17 train cars.
To match the go-fasts, the United States has given Colombia eight Midnight Express powerboats and four more are being readied for delivery, according to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.
The fastest loaded smuggling boat seen off Colombia's shores was powered by four 200 horsepower engines and was clocked at 58 mph. The Midnight Express can do 69 mph.
Honduran President Ricardo Maduro told AP he also wants U.S. help, saying the transshipment of huge amounts of cocaine menaces his Central American country.
"The quantity of drugs, in comparison with our interdiction capabilities and our poverty, presents an enormous danger," Maduro said during a visit to New York. "Because it doesn't just involve an enormous quantity of money, but a capacity for creating violence ... and corruption."