Submarine Links Colombian Drug Traffickers With Russian Mafia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They should have been friendlier to the neighbors.

The three foreigners first raised suspicions in the Andean mountain village of Facatativa because they never smiled or waved. Then people noticed that they always had food delivered and seldom emerged from the warehouse where they worked.

Finally, someone called the police. Officers, shocked by what they discovered when they entered the warehouse during a predawn raid Sept. 7, made two phone calls: one to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office here and another to the Russian ambassador.

Thanks to the offended villagers, law enforcement officers had found a 100-foot submarine under construction, the first tangible evidence of a long-suspected alliance between the latest generation of Colombian drug traffickers and the Russian mafia.

That partnership concerns security experts, who worry that Colombian drug traffickers may be getting more than hardware from their Russian associates. They could be buying intelligence and counterintelligence services from spies who learned their trade in the notorious KGB, warned Frank J. Cilluffo, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Law enforcement officials believe that the submarine was being built to smuggle up to 10 tons of narcotics--a testament to the ingenuity of drug traffickers and, perhaps, to the strength of combined forces.

Together, Russian and Colombian organized crime groups make a formidable team. "Colombian cocaine trafficking groups generate billions of dollars in revenues each year, resources that increasingly have been used to purchase the best talent and technology available on the market," noted one international antinarcotics organization's report on the submarine incident.

And in the post-Soviet world, many Russians have entered that market. "In Russia today," Cilluffo observed, "anything and everything is for sale."

Even the technology to build submarines.

Russians were linked to the Colombian submarine by Russian tools, manuals written in Russian--using the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet--and evidence that two of the foreigners who had made villagers suspicious were Russian, law enforcement and diplomatic sources said. The third man apparently was an American, and U.S.-made tools also were found, they said.

No one was at the warehouse when police raided it, and no arrests have been made.

Soon after the sub's discovery, a Colombian newspaper quoted the Russian police attache here as saying, "It's one of ours." He later denied that statement through a spokesman.

Still, only Russia and the United States have submarine-building technology, although the know-how is licensed to manufacturers in other countries, Russian Embassy spokesman Dimitri Belov said.

In 1995, the Cali cartel unsuccessfully tried to buy a used Russian submarine larger than the one under construction, according to court documents filed in Miami. Colombian police intelligence documents state that during the previous three years, the Cali cartel had been supplying cocaine to Moscow and St. Petersburg through the Solntsevo gang, one of the most powerful organized crime groups in Russia.

"Russian groups negotiated with the Cali cartel to pay for various drug shipments with arms that were later sold in Central America and to subversive groups in Colombia," according to the intelligence documents.

"This is at least a 10-year evolution that has reached greater and greater heights as it has evolved," Bruce Bagley, an Andean specialist at the University of Miami, said of the alliance between Russian and Colombian organized crime. Russians distribute Colombian cocaine in Europe, launder drug money through their banks in the Caribbean and supply guns for the prolonged multi-sided civil war that kills an average of 3,000 Colombians a year, he said.

The discovery of the submarine is the first solid clue that a close partnership exists between Colombia's new, smaller cartels and the Russian mob, a collective term that covers at least 250 organizations. Law enforcement officers believe that the submarine project was a cooperative effort among several small groups that shared the estimated $25-million cost of building it, much as they spread the risk for major drug shipments.

The submarine case also has provided a chance for Colombian, U.S. and Russian law enforcement officials to work together against that criminal alliance.

"The submarine is the first case in which we have been invited to participate, and that is an achievement," the Russian Embassy's Belov said. "Up to now, there has been a lot of talk but very few facts."

In 1997, there were reports that Marxist guerrillas in Colombia had Russian tanks. A year later, they were said to have Russian trainers and, the following year, a Russian airplane. "None of that information was ever confirmed," Belov said.

Only two Russians have been arrested in Colombia on drug-related charges in the past three years, he said, and each of those cases involved less than half a kilo of cocaine.

The Russian ambassador sent two diplomatic notes and once even visited the former chief of Colombia's national police, Gen. Jose Serrano, to demand that he either provide proof of Russian mafia involvement in Colombia's illegal drugs and arms trade or stop talking about it, aides to both men confirmed.

For that reason, sources in Colombia are reluctant to discuss the connection between the two organized crime groups. But experts on organized crime who live outside Colombia say it was inevitable that the Russians and Colombians would do business together.

Each side had what the other needed. The Colombians were deft at growing coca and processing and distributing cocaine, but they were weak in getting the profits back into Colombia, said a former DEA agent who asked not to be identified because he is still a target of drug traffickers.

Russians had access to casinos and offshore banks throughout the Caribbean that could be used for money laundering. They also could provide a back door into the European drug market that would allow Colombians to expand their business, he said.

What some of Russia's best-connected agents needed was money, and the Colombians had that in abundance.

In the early 1990s, said J. Michael Waller, a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, "The [Russian] Finance Ministry was not coming up with the funds needed to run an intelligence service."

Drawing on the expertise gained from running heroin out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he said, members of the Russian intelligence service began smuggling drugs in earnest. Embassy spokesman Belov said he was "not aware" of any such activity by the now-defunct KGB.

A Colombian police intelligence report noted, "The great power of the Russian criminal organizations stems in large part from the fact that the majority of them are made up of ex-agents of the secret services such as the KGB."

Experts outside Colombia consider that an understatement. "This took place with the knowledge and tacit approval of the leadership of the intelligence service," Waller said.

"In order to keep talented personnel, the KGB had to look the other way while their experts did business on the side," he said.

Adding to the problem, he said, is a structure that lacks accountability. The Russian intelligence services include a category of agents called "active reserve," he said.

"They go about daily lives while operating as intelligence officers," Waller said. "There is no way to draw the line" between their intelligence activities and their business dealings, whether legal or illegal.

Cilluffo noted: "You have to put Russian crime in the perspective of a toxic blend of crime, business and politics. It's not easy to see who is the puppet and who is the master."

Because former and, perhaps, current intelligence service agents are involved, he warned, the Colombian traffickers can rely on them not just for hardware but also for information. Besides submarine technology, they also may be providing counterintelligence consulting to stymie counternarcotics efforts, he said.

The United States should consider the implications of this alliance as it prepares to send helicopters to the Colombian army as part of its $1.3-billion package of mainly military aid, the experts cautioned. "Black Hawks and Hueys," Bagley noted, "could be quite vulnerable to a technological escalation."

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