Hand-built semi-submersibles are here, packed to the gills with enough cocaine to fuel any rager John Belushi and Whitney Houston might want to co-host in whatever heavenly nirvana they’re existing in.

The bad guys are using every tool at their disposal to make sure their ocean-going million-dollar mules get their cargo to the noses, veins and lungs that demand it.

The risk/reward factor favours the cartels

Cocaine smuggling is a constant because the people who do it make money, plain and simple. How much? First, let’s look at some of what drug cartels have lost. Before the fall of 2015 had even rolled around it was reported that the U.S. Coast Guard had seized $1.8 billion dollars worth of cocaine from both boats and submarines, more than the previous three years combined.

If you can’t parallel park don’t bother trying to captain one of these things.

That hefty 10-month haul landed them 119,000 pounds (54,000 kilograms) of blow, and while it is an impressive number the flip side of it is the Coast Guard estimates they are only intercepting 30% of the drugs they can track. Not to nitpick, but they can’t really say for sure how much they’re not tracking.

Cartels are still managing to sneak approximately 70% of their shipments past, and those deliveries help add up to the 900,000 lb (408,000 kg) of cocaine that is ingested in the United States each year. A 2008 UN study estimates that the Andean region of South America alone is responsible for smuggling that supplied the U.S. cocaine worth $88 billion on the retail market.

The U.S. Coast Guard is on high alert for the increasing number of narco subs heading towards American shores. Photo: Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone

It’s hard to catch what you can’t see

How are subs helping to make the job of drug enforcement officials in countries like the U.S. more difficult? For starters, the U.S. Coast Guard is dealing with combatants in the form of Colombian-based drug cartels that seem to have a bottomless pit of money available to them to keep improving sea-faring transportation methods.

Those improvements include the use of self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSSs) crafted from marine-grade plywood and fibreglass, and for a single sub that will be used only once they’ll fork out $1 million. It may seem pricey, but consider this: one Pacific Ocean takedown on March 2, 2016 saw the seizure of almost 13,000 lbs (5,897 kgs) of cocaine worth nearly $194 million off one submersible being crewed by four people.

This type of vessel is known around waterways across the globe simply as the sinister sounding narco sub. It’s not exactly speedy (most top out around 7 miles or 11 kilometres an hour) but is hard to detect with radar, leaves barely any wake, and is usually painted to make spotting it from the air against the forever blue of the sea nearly impossible.

The history of sea-going smuggling vessels that make water their security blanket.

Slow and steady wins the drug race

When submersibles made their debut with the cartels back in the early 1990s they were extremely basic in their construction but still costly to make and not much more than a barely floating accident waiting to happen. By the mid-90s they were being equipped with an internal oxygen supply, radar and a depth meter.

At this stage they were capable of carrying about a ton of cocaine but were still rarely used and even less frequently seen. To call them a submarine at this point would also be a bit of a stretch, since many of them were not fully submersible and those that were often had to stay slightly above or within a few feet of the surface with a crudely-erect periscope sticking above the waves to guide them.

It was when a semi-submersible was captured in the eastern Pacific Ocean by the Coast Guard in November of 2006 and given the moniker ‘Bigfoot’ (the rumours they had been hearing about drug-carrying submersibles were more urban legend than anything else until now) that the ingenuity of the engineers behind the construction of the subs became apparent and also began to get A-Team creative. Now roughly 80% of drugs entering the U.S. cross the ocean, and 30% of that comes under the waves aboard narco subs.

Mauner Mahecha’s super sub, 74-feet of drug transporting ingenuity. Photo: Jim Popkin

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put your coke-crazed mind to it

One such engineer, or in this case high school graduate, was Mauner Mahecha. He had the money for research and upgrades, and put the cash flow to use. During a two-week federal drug trial of an associate in Miami in 2013 some of Mahecha’s methods were made public for the first time with the discovery of one of his ‘super subs’.

No fibreglass for Mahecha, thank you very much. Instead he used kevlar and carbon fibre to coat his 74-foot (22.5 meter) camouflaged creation, and it could go ten days without having to refuel while remaining underwater at depths as low as 60 feet. It was also capable of submerged travel for 18 hours at a time using twin propellers.

It had a range of 6,800 nautical miles travelling the surface powered by diesel engines and 249 rechargeable lead-acid batteries. Nine tons of cocaine could be carried in its cargo bay (worth $250 million), and its crew of up to six people were GPS navigated.

Oh, and he and his team of ex-Colombian navy personnel plus local welders and electricians made it in a mangrove swamp, by hand. It and two other submarines were seized before any of the craft were able to make their maiden voyages during a 2010 raid that eventually resulted in Mahecha being sentenced to 18 years in a Florida prison.

Below, have a look at the Coast Guard in action as they ‘pull over’ a narco sub carrying $181 million in cocaine.

From the initial shock of spotting the Bigfoot of submersibles to now seeing 10 narco subs a month, the U.S. Coast Guard has had their hands full on the high seas (pardon the pun).

Things have come a long way from drug catapults and cocaine-stuffed hot peppers, but considering the money that’s on the line (again, pardon the pun) drug subs packed with pearl and heading for U.S. shores will continue to do whatever it takes to complete the voyage.

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Jay Moon

Jay Moon is a writer who has turned the wanderlust that found him backpacking around Canada and the U.S. as a young lad into a writing lust that has him embracing the opportunity to cover topics about anything (and everything) he can get his now middle-aged eyes, ears, and hands on.