- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

FACATATIVA, Colombia In a scheme worthy of Jules Verne, Colombian drug traffickers were building a huge, high-tech, drug-smuggling submarine, reportedly with help from American and Russian criminals.

Police stumbled upon the half-built submarine Wednesday night in a warehouse outside the capital, Bogota 7,500 feet up in the Andes mountains and 210 miles from any port.

Even by smugglers' innovation standards, this was off the charts the French fantasy novelist Verne might have called it "200 Tons of Cocaine Under the Sea."

The 100-foot submarine could have crossed an ocean, surfaced off Miami or other coastal cities, and surreptitiously unloaded its drug cargo.

"In the 30-some-odd years I have been in law enforcement, I have never seen anything like this," Leo Arreguin, the chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Colombia, said yesterday.

"This is huge," Mr. Arreguin said. "We're talking about being able to load up to 200 tons of cocaine in this submarine."

Top officials flocked to the warehouse yesterday to marvel at the lengths that Colombian drug traffickers, who supply more than 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a rising share of its heroin, go to export their illicit inventory.

Police were led to the find by suspicious area residents, who had seen Americans hanging around the warehouse, located in a cow pasture off a highway near the suburb of Facatativa.

When police arrived, there was no one around. Surveillance cameras had been placed on the roof. No arrests have been made.

"This is very high-tech," said Colombian Navy Capt. Ismael Idrobo, gazing up at the reddish sub, which stood in three sections on lengths of railroad track. "Look at the rudders and the pressurized double hull. This could easily travel 100 [yards] under the surface of the ocean."

Navy Capt. Fidel Azula, a former submarine captain and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said even the Colombian navy lacked the knowledge to build such a vessel. "This is unmistakably of superb naval construction," he said.

Mr. Arreguin said seized documents, including blueprints, contained Russian- and American-sounding names. There were indications Russian engineers were involved, including "a very professional engineer who has constructed submarines before," Mr. Arreguin said.

The Russian Mafia has become increasingly involved in cocaine trafficking to Europe, the drug agent noted.

Scattered about the warehouse were welding tools, propane tanks, hard hats, toolboxes, and knee pads, and a Grainger Tools catalog from the United States. A no-smoking sign and calendars featuring bikini-clad models hung on the walls.

Previously, smugglers have outfitted passenger planes and ships to transport drugs, and even built some tiny fiberglass "submersibles" to ferry drugs to a mother ship. But they were mere contraptions compared to this sub, which measured more than 11 feet in diameter.

Years ago, Colombian drug traffickers reportedly tried to buy, through intermediaries, a military submarine from the Kremlin's fleet as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Theorizing why this sub was being built so far from the ocean, National Police Director Gen. Ernesto Gilibert said it was to conceal the operation and for easy access to high-grade construction materials.

Officials believe the traffickers would have transported the sub in three sections to the coast aboard tractor-trailers.

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