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‘Captain Nemo’ is grounded

Kraul is a Times staff writer.

Squat, bull-necked and sullen-looking, Enrique Portocarrero hardly seems a dashing character out of a Jules Verne science fiction novel.

But law enforcement officers here have dubbed him “Captain Nemo,” after the dark genius of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” They say the 45-year-old has designed and built as many as 20 fiberglass submarines, strange vessels with the look of sea creatures, for drug traffickers to haul cocaine from this area of southern Colombia to Central America and Mexico.

Capping a three-year investigation that involved U.S. and British counter-narcotics agents, Colombia’s FBI equivalent, the Department of Administrative Security, arrested Portocarrero last month in the violent port city of Buenaventura, where he allegedly led a double life as a shrimp fisherman.

A day later, they descended on Portocarrero’s hidden “shipyard” in a mangrove swamp 20 miles south of here and destroyed two of the vessels, which police say were each capable of carrying 8 tons of cargo.

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“He had a marvelous criminal vision,” Colombian navy Capt. Luis German Borrero said. “He introduced innovations such as a bow that produced very little wake, a conning tower that rises only a foot above the water and a valve system that enables the crew to scuttle the sub in 10 minutes. He is very ingenious.”

Authorities say they know little about Portocarrero except that he was arrested in 2003 on drug charges and soon released, a fact he relayed with a smirk when he was nabbed last month. Most important, he once worked at a dry dock in Buenaventura, where he apparently learned his craft.

Portocarrero was living well. Police, who reported finding $200,000 hidden in the spare tire of his car, say he had invested his reputed $1-million-per-vessel fees in the purchase of five shrimp boats.

Administrative Security officials allege that Portocarrero helped invent “semi-submersibles,” as the narco-vessels are called, because they don’t dive and resurface like true submarines, but cruise just below the surface.

Portocarrero’s craft are difficult for counter-narcotics officials to detect on the open seas because their tiny wake creates a negligible radar “footprint.” Also, authorities say, the exhaust is released through tubing below the surface, frustrating patrol aircraft’s heat-sensing equipment.

“He knew the rudiments of boat design, but probably had help from a naval engineer along the way,” Borrero said.

Portocarrero developed a signature design, police say: a sleek V-shaped hull; a sturdy keel, which is the boat’s backbone; and an exhaust system that makes the boat look like a monster from the deep.

There has been a quantum leap in detection and capture of semi-submersibles in the last two years. Fifteen have been seized, destroyed or scuttled this year in the Pacific and Caribbean, compared with only one in 2006, said Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, head of Joint Interagency Task Force South, the Pentagon’s anti-narcotics command center, based in Key West, Fla.

He estimated that as many as 60 of the vessels have slipped past patrols to deliver cocaine to Mexico and Central America. Colombian agents say Portocarrero may have been in charge of building as many as a third of the subs this year.

The trend has U.S. security officials concerned because of the craft’s potential for ferrying weapons and terrorists.

“If they can’t make money transferring drugs, they could always turn to something else to transfer, other illicit cargoes,” Nimmich said.

A conference on the issue last month in the Colombian city of Cartagena was attended by authorities from 26 countries, including Venezuela, which has forsworn cooperation with U.S. counter-narcotics agents.

The development is the latest in the cat-and-mouse game between drug traffickers and counter-narcotics officials. Authorities believe tighter controls on Colombian and Ecuadorean fishing vessels, often used to move drugs, were a factor in the shift to subs. Since mid-2007, all fishing boats in the region have been required to carry GPS devices so police can track their movements.

The Colombian navy and police also say that so-called Midnight Express speedboats, supplied by the U.S., have improved their chances of chasing down “go-fast” outboard boats, once the preferred mode of transport.

“Speed was no longer winning the day,” said a high-ranking U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official based in Colombia who noted the “exponential increase” in the use of stealthy semi-submersible vessels in the last few years. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Police say several cocaine traffickers, looking to regain the advantage, got together to combine their cargoes and buy Portocarrero’s boats, which took about six weeks each to build, said an informant who led Colombian coast guard officials to Portocarrero’s mangrove shipyard. Each vessel was designed according to the load of drugs, the informant said, with the maximum cargo of 10 tons of cocaine, worth $250 million in street value.

Portocarrero’s vessels measured up to 60 feet long and were outfitted with complex ballast, communications and power systems, officials said. They were typically powered by 350-horsepower diesel engines, and the four-man crew had state-of-the-art radio, GPS and satellite telephone communications.

The subs have a range of 2,000 miles, more than enough to get from here to Mexico’s Bay of Tehuantepec, a favored destination, Borrero said.

Although the subs are taxing counter-narcotics officials’ ability to keep up, DEA officials say they are getting better at detecting the subs, thanks to computerized systems in British patrol aircraft.

Law enforcement has also been helped by a law the U.S. Congress passed in October making it possible to convict a boat’s crew on the basis of visual evidence that they were manning the subs. Before, crews avoided prosecution by simply scuttling the craft and sinking the drugs, depriving law enforcement of the evidence they needed.

Colombian authorities say they expect Portocarrero to be extradited to the United States, though no U.S. charges have yet been filed against him.

Some officials fear it’s only a matter of time before traffickers take the next “logical” step: the use of real submarines. Although no true submarines have ever been stopped with cocaine, authorities discovered one in 1995 near Bogota being built according to Russian plans.

“As the interdiction rate against semi-submersibles increases, as it has, will traffickers revert back to the ubiquitous ‘go-fasts,’ or will they take it to the next level -- a fully submersible craft, unmanned with remote guidance capability?” the high-ranking DEA official said. “The latter has a lot more agencies than just DEA concerned.”

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chris.kraul@latimes.com


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