The World's Most Sophisticated Narco Submarine Designer Was Just Taken Down

Óscar Moreno Ricardo spent two decades building submersibles that drug-traffickers use to move cocaine from Colombia to the United States and other countries in the region.
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A man who spent the past two decades building increasingly sophisticated narco subs for Latin America’s powerful drug cartels has been arrested in Colombia, bringing an end to a long career facilitating dope smuggling to the U.S. 

But it’s unlikely his arrest will hit the cartels too hard—using narco subs to move cocaine and other drugs undetected off the region’s coasts is so common that other builders will likely take his throne. 

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Óscar Moreno Ricardo was detained earlier this month in the inland city of Medellín by national police and the army working alongside the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to Colombian prosecutors. He was likely on a trip to seal a drug transportation deal when he was arrested, far from his coastal base in Acandi, north of Medellín. 

Narco subs, or improvised submersibles, are improvised from boats or their parts, and waterproofed with engines inside. Armed men are usually on board to make sure the precious cargo gets to its destination. Their submersible nature makes it harder for radar systems to detect them, according to the New York Times, and only an estimated 14 percent of them are ever stopped.

Acandi, which sits on the Caribbean sea near Colombia’s border with Panama, where central America begins, is an ideal embarkation point for subs laden with cocaine destined for the U.S. 

Moreno Ricardo,  who is wanted by a court in the Eastern District of Texas, began his maritime career as a speedboat driver, and in 2005 started running drugs out of the country for Colombian armed guerrilla groups the ELN and Gulf Clan, as well as for the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG) in Mexico, according to Colombian prosecutors

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About five years ago, Moreno Ricardo turned to building improvised submersibles for his criminal clients, and he was so good at it he became known as the “Rey de los Semisumergibles” (King of the Submersibles), said the Colombian government. His constructions were huge, with the capacity to carry as much as five tons of cocaine at a time. Reports suggest that submersible vessels can be 50-foot long or more, and some photos suggest they were the size of long yachts.

The use of subs to move drugs is popular off the Pacific coast, as well as in the Caribbean, where Ricardo Moreno mostly operated. In 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard released footage of officers boarding a submersible hundreds of miles off the east coast of Ecuador that was carrying nearly a ton of cocaine, worth a reported $232 million. The video showed them pounding on the sub’s hatch, demanding that it come to a stop. 

The king might be sunk, but his industry will continue to sail.

Subs like the ones Ricardo Moreno specialized in building have been used in the region for more than 30 years, according to some observers, and other builders will likely take his place. In 2009, an estimated 70 narco subs were constructed in the Colombian jungle, for just $500,000.

Colombia has arrested a number of narco sub manufacturers in recent years. Authorities seized 31 narco subs in 2021, a jump from 23 in 2019, according to InSight Crime. In 2018, prominent Colombian businessman Rodrigo Pineda was accused of adapting boats to become semi-submersibles to service drug-trafficking organizations.

In the U.S. last year, six Colombians pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges that included using narco subs to move tons of cocaine into the United States. “The defendants were part of a transnational criminal organization that dispatched self-propelled semi-submersible vessels, sometimes known as narco submarines, from Colombia into the Pacific Ocean, destined for Sinaloa Cartel members in Oaxaca, Mexico,” according to the Middle District of Florida.