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The sub was seized in what was described in the media as a secret “industrial complex” run by traffickers and large enough to accommodate 50 workers. The complex was hidden in a mangrove swamp not far from the Colombian border near the town of San Lorenzo.

One person was arrested, but Ecuadorean authorities have not released information about the suspect.

Officials reportedly seized the submarine - which Ecuadorean authorities think was destined for Mexico - before it took its maiden voyage. No drugs were found on board.

Larry Karson, a retired U.S. Customs Service agent and criminal justice lecturer at the University of Houston, said the DEA has its work cut out for it.

“There is a long history of U.S. government seizing semi-submersibles,” Mr. Karson said, adding that the discovery could prompt customs officials and the U.S. Navy to shift their assets to better patrol U.S. coasts. “This has the potential, based on further DEA intelligence, to change the playing field.”

Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States, Luis Benigno Gallegos, told The Washington Times that he would like Colombia to take a stronger role in controlling drugs and crime on its side of the border.

Mr. Gallegos insisted that Ecuador, which has built up its military presence in the border area, faces the herculean task of ridding itself of drug networks made powerful by massive demand for cocaine in Europe and the United States.

“My principal concern is how we deal with this problem in the future,” Mr. Gallegos said. “I certainly don’t see it going away in 10 or 15 years. And I don’t see anything ever improving until the U.S. does something about its drug consumption.”

Many people in ramshackle border villages say the drug war is unwinnable, that transit routes and cocaine labs uncovered by police will - like bulges in a squeezed balloon - simply reappear elsewhere in this vast jungle.

Complicating matters, Ecuador supplies gasoline and petroleum ether, a byproduct of oil-drilling operations in northern Ecuador, to clandestine drug labs.

Ecuador is a major transit country for illicit drugs trafficked from Colombia and Peru to the United States, as well as a source of chemical precursors diverted for illicit narcotics manufacturing,” according to the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, issued by the U.S. State Department.

Further complicating the situation, this area’s grinding poverty and joblessness ensure that drug networks have a constant supply of peasant workers and “mules” for transporting illegal products.

A farmer earning $1 a day on a farm plot, for example, can earn more than $1,000 for delivering a 50-gallon drum of gasoline to a clandestine cocaine lab, according to interviews with locals.

Seated in a tiny restaurant in the border town of Puerto Nuevo, where Ecuadorean military officials say leftist guerrillas from Colombia’s civil war come to rest and find supplies, longtime resident Octavio Catano reflected on what he describes as a hopeless situation.

“How can you change things when the people have no alternatives?” said Mr. Catano, director of the Puerto Nuevo Art and Culture House. “They have to feed their families. What would you do?”