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Drug Smuggling With Submarines

The greatest obstacle facing drug cartels has always been transporting narcotics from the poor regions that produce them to the less-poor areas that buy them.
July 14, 2009, 4:00am
Photos by Bernardo Loyola, David Feinberg, and Dr. Miguel Angel Montoya

The greatest obstacle facing drug cartels has always been transporting narcotics from the poor regions that produce them to the less-poor areas that buy them. In the early part of the 2000s, a time still dominated by incarcerated Cali Cartel heads in Colombia, a technological breakthrough was made on this front: privately made drug-filled torpedoes and semi-submersibles.

Dr. Miguel Angel Montoya is the former trafficker who spearheaded the project, which attached simple radio devices to compartmentalized tubes the cartel hitched to modest towboats—in effect taking much of the battle out of the skies. If a marine patrol became suspicious, the device was simply jettisoned and retrieved by a backup cartel boat tracking its signal. All these years later, Montoya still doesn't believe that international customs agents will ever thwart the well-funded research-and-development efforts of international drug outfits.


Motherboard: Can you tell me what it is you do?
Dr. Miguel Angel Montoya: I'm a doctor and former member of an organization dedicated to drug trafficking.

I understand this was the Cali Cartel. How were you recruited?
The organization needed a Mexican contact in Colombia, and my friend was the catalyst. It was my first experience with cocaine trafficking between Colombia and Mexico.

What was your role?
Initially, I traveled to Colombia to take coordinates for the flight drops. I was the liaison who made sure everything got done.

And eventually you were part of the revolution that changed how drugs are transported.
In 2000, an engineer friend of mine in Medellín had the idea that a hollowed-out torpedo could serve to transport anywhere between 500 kilos and five tons of cocaine.

Can you explain the design?
It was based on torpedoes used in the war, and in blueprints we showed how it consisted of a tube within a tube. The inner tube was divided into five chambers that would help prevent flooding in the case of a collision.

Were they propulsion torpedoes?
They were towed, actually, with a steel cable as long as 1,000 feet. Steel cable creates a lot of tension on a towboat, though, and reeling it in is difficult.

In the event you were spotted, the alternative to reeling in the torpedo was to cut it loose?
Yes, it would be cut loose from a security latch. The cable would stay with the torpedo and you would get as far away as possible. The device stayed submerged and it was impossible to find.


But how would the runners find it?
We adapted an attachment for a radio transmitter on top. This had a timer and a GPS device, which was monitored on the boat. The boat transmitted the frequency of the radio buoy via a decoder and a radio VHS, which was activated with a clock, and we would always have the location via satellite.

Where did you get the idea for the radio transmitter?
Well, we saw how tuna boats dragged buoys that held fishing nets. We modified the buoys by removing the flotation devices and inserting an electronic mechanism.

Very clever.
The idea was adapted from other existing things. The fishing buoys were there, and torpedoes existed. It simply occurred to someone to put one with the other. It's not sophisticated. They are applied ideas.

How did you control the depth of the torpedo during the tow?
The tube had a ballast system that allowed water into a chamber, which caused it to submerge. When water was released, it allowed the torpedo to emerge. The advantage was that if you were traveling fast it submerged as many as 100 feet and couldn't be seen.

Were there any distinct disadvantages?
When the boat slowed down, the device emerged and could be seen.

How long did the first torpedo take to assemble?
It took about one year to design and another six months to gather the resources to finance it. Once the design was complete, I had the authority to move ahead, and the work started—with an organization that protected us in the jungle.


The machines were put together in the jungle?
They had to be built in the jungle and near the ocean.

Did you hire engineers to assemble it?
Yes, we contracted an engineer to develop the hydraulic systems.

It sounds very time-consuming.
The first device we made took three months. It was small so we could identify the flaws. It was essentially a large model of the device, which we tested in the river.

Was the torpedo system developed because other methods were no longer effective?
At the beginning, in the times of Pablo Escobar, it was common for planes to leave Colombia and land on clandestine strips in the US or Mexico. Later, that was difficult.

Were the authorities taking notice?
It got more complicated each time, and traffickers were getting captured.

How much cocaine did the planes travel with?
Normally, a plane in the south of Mexico arrived with no less than a ton of cocaine.

Were these torpedoes as useful in terms of tonnage?
Once we saw that the small machine worked, we started planning a larger one—a machine that had the capacity for three tons.

How much money did three tons of cocaine generate in 2000?
One kilo cost approximately $2,100. Once it reached its destination, like Mexico, it was $8,000. In other places, like the US, its price increased even more.

With 1,000 kilos in a ton, and a three-ton installment, you were looking at around $24 million per torpedo. Jesus. But for that first trip you used the small device.
Yes, and it arrived perfectly at the coast of Mexico. The group who ran it decided to do the second trip with the same device. But they didn't have much knowledge of how it worked or how heavy it was.


How many boats were used in each trip?
The process required three boats: one to tow the device, one to go ahead to warn of marine patrols or the American Coast Guard, and one for backup protection—a lookout that traveled 24 hours behind the towboat. It was practically a relay, and the chance of success was about 90 percent.

Were there accompanying teams on the ground?
Normally, there were two teams: one in Mexico, which was expected to salvage the device, and one that dispatched the boat.

Do you know if this approach is still used today?
From what I understand, it is. But they perfected some things.

A similar device used prior to torpedoes was the semi-submersible. What's the difference between that and the torpedo?
Well, the semi-submersible has a mold made of fiberglass, and it carries a large diesel engine. They're boats made to travel just below the waterline.

What are their advantages and disadvantages?
If you're looking at the horizon, semi-submersibles are impossible to see—that's their only advantage. A disadvantage is that from above they're very easy to spot no matter how much they're camouflaged.

And given their size, I assume they were pretty slow.
Well, first of all, fast boats leave wakes that can be spotted by a helicopter or a plane. These large submersibles traveled at a speed of seven knots, which isn't much. They took 20 days or more to get to their destination in Mexico.


Looking at pictures of these submersibles, they seem difficult and expensive to make.
It was very difficult, and the mold was extremely costly. But all innovations in drug trafficking come when the situation hits a crisis state.

Was Mexico, and by extension the US, always the destination for Colombian trafficking?
The final objective of these technologies was to take the merchandise from the ports of the Colombian Caribe to the coasts of Spain, because of the potential market that exists there. It would be very easy to transport drugs to Spain with these devices.

Has it been done?
I imagine so.

Do you think traffickers are using these subs to transport things other than drugs? Human cargo? Weapons?
I can't be sure, but the technology exists. And it's very easy to use.

What do you think is the future of trafficking?
I know they are working to demolecularize cocaine and split it, and I understand they've been doing this with great success. They've managed to mix cocaine with industrial oil, which can be stored perfectly well in the fuel tank of any truck or boat.

And for the actual transportation?
I think it will be completely automated or driven by remote control. They'd be able to transport from their offices by means of satellite signals.

I would guess it's come to that already.
I don't dare to affirm that, but the evolution of the devices was already on its way.

Are governments' methods of fighting drug running obsolete?
I think the basic problem is that drugs are illegal. When something is illegal, there are 10, 20, 30 people who hope to benefit from it. The day it is no longer illegal and controlled, it will be over.

But as it currently stands, there's no hope.
There are always people trying to beat the system. They spend enormous amounts of money on technology, experiments, and research. These people have all the money in the world to do it.

The profit will—
The profit will always be more than what was spent. It's an economic war.