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20,000 kilos under the sea

Times Staff Writer

The capture was worthy of an action thriller: elite Mexican troops rappelling from a helicopter onto the deck of a mysterious submarine.

The 33-foot vessel turned out to be crammed with parcels apparently containing cocaine, possibly tons of it. The disheveled crew of four had emerged in stocking feet and baggy shorts, claiming to have shipped out from Colombia a week earlier under threat of death.

Mexico’s military confirmed Thursday that the men were Colombian, but it offered little new information on the capture of the mini-sub off the southern coast a day earlier.

Capt. Jose Luis Vergara, a spokesman for the Mexican navy, said authorities were hauling the “very well-constructed” vessel to shore and had yet to weigh the contraband, which he said probably amounted to tons.

The unusual episode suggests that the government, already struggling against drug traffickers by land and air, faces a vexing new front undersea.

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Colombian drug suppliers have increasingly used small, semi-submersible craft to try to smuggle narcotics north toward their eventual markets, mainly in the U.S. Colombian forces and the U.S. Coast Guard have seized more than a dozen such boats during the last 2 1/2 years.

U.S. officials say the craft are being used more often because they are harder to detect by radar. The seizures represent a fraction of the 40 or so vessels that have been spotted since 2007, according to U.S. authorities.

“When they think they might be caught, the crews tend to scuttle them,” said Jose Ruiz, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which monitors drug activities. “They get out of them, sink them, and the drugs go to the bottom of the ocean so they can’t be recovered for evidence.”

Wednesday’s seizure of the olive, surfboard-shaped vessel in the Pacific about 125 miles off the state of Oaxaca was the first of its kind off the coast of Mexico, authorities said.

The seizure provided images of speeding navy patrol boats and adrenaline-charged commandos perched atop the vessel -- a showy victory for President Felipe Calderon and his 18-month-old crackdown on drug-trafficking gangs.

The crackdown has sent 45,000 federal troops and police agents into the streets along the U.S. border and other key drug-smuggling corridors. Drug gangs have ratcheted up their capabilities by adding grenades and bazookas to their arsenals and, authorities say, outfitting cars with bombs for possible use against government forces.

Now authorities apparently face a maritime weapon as smugglers seek ways to move their product to U.S. consumers.

“Mexico is not prepared for this,” said Guillermo Garduno, a national security specialist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City. “If there is a naval front by the traffickers, it means the need [for Mexico] to restructure or modify its naval forces.”

Unlike numerous other Latin American nations, Mexico does not have a submarine force, which was considered expensive and unnecessary.

But the growing use of small, hard-to-detect underwater craft could alter that thinking since such vessels could also be used by terrorists against Mexican oil-drilling equipment in the Gulf of Mexico, Garduno said.

In a statement, the navy said its forces moved in on the vessel after receiving intelligence from “national and international agencies.”

Vergara declined to elaborate on the source of the intelligence or how the sub was tracked. In a television interview, he said that although such vessels can evade radar by staying just below the surface, they’re easy to spot from the air because they cannot go deep.

U.S. officials in Mexico City praised the operation but would say only that they routinely cooperate with Mexican authorities to fight drug trafficking.

The crew members, interviewed by Mexican media on land as they were led into custody Wednesday, said they left the port city of Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, seven days earlier. If so, they had traveled at least 1,300 miles before their capture.

The men, ranging in age from their 20s to late 50s, claimed to be fishermen and said they had been kidnapped and forced to make the journey by men who threatened their families. The sailors claimed they were unaware of the contents or destination of the craft, which they said was guided by a satellite navigation system. It was unclear how much control they had over the sub.

“They told us we had to take [the sub] where they sent us,” suspect Rafael Jimenez, 27, was quoted in the Reforma newspaper as saying.

The men said they were to be paid $500 each.

Buenaventura is one of the places where Colombian authorities have seized the fiberglass mini-subs, some while still under construction. Officials believe that at least some of the boats have been built at the behest of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, of FARC, a rebel group widely considered the country’s leading drug trafficker.

The homemade vessels have become increasingly sophisticated, with self-propelled models powered by 350-horsepower diesel engines and equipped with ballast and communications systems that make them hard to spot.

The vessels can be almost fully submerged, though they lack the diving and resurfacing abilities of true submarines.

U.S. law enforcement officials have expressed concern that the vessels could eventually be used by terrorists against American targets.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau and Times staff writer Vimal Patel in Washington contributed to this report.


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