Does the idea of a cocaine submarine conjure up pictures of Scarface-style opulence in a nautical setting? The truth is, these boats would make Captain Bligh’s vessel seem like a luxury cruise ship. Journalist Craig Stephens introduces us to the scallywags of the yayo seas.

We All Live in a Yayo Submarine 
Illegal drugs and their means of transport are constantly evolving. Cocaine and weed shipments have been entering the United States from Central and South America via a range of methods, with seagoing craft being one of the most popular. First there were fishing boats, then "go-fasts" (speedboats mounted with multiple engines). Once these started succumbing to improved detection, drug cartels developed the semi-submersible "narco sub" – which is now making way for the full-scale submarine.

In 2010, authorities in Ecuador announced that they had seized an actual submarine designed for smuggling drugs. "It is the first fully functional, completely submersible submarine for transoceanic voyages that we have ever found," said Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, speaking to the Associated Press.

According to reports, the captured sub was 33 meters long, could accommodate a crew of five or six, and was equipped with twin-screw diesel-electric propulsion, periscopes and even air conditioning. The DEA said the vessel could have carried up to 10 tons of coke

The sub was found at a secret "shipyard" facility on a jungle river in Ecuador not far from the Colombian border. The shipyard boasted accommodations for more than 50 people, yet only one person was arrested by Ecuadoran soldiers and police, who were acting on intelligence provided by the DEA.

These days, cartels and drug runners are reportedly shelling out millions of dollars to build these types of complex vessels, recruiting highly skilled engineers who are usually ex-military. Still, the hefty price tag and lengthy construction time remain a drawback – so while the relentless ingenuity and innovation of the drug cartels suggest that full-scale submarines are already in use (or will be soon), the good old semi-submersible still dominates the trade. Costing less than half the price of a real sub, these vessels can be abandoned or sunk with ease if caught. In use since the late 1990s, the first-generation narco sub is simply a semi-submersible boat with an all-enclosing cap on top. Fitted with ordinary marine engines, it is able to avoid radar detection because only a small part of the boat’s structure rides above the surface. Air intakes and a periscope fitted with simple cameras for below-deck navigation are the only parts of these vessels exposed above the waterline. As a result, aerial surveillance is generally the sole means to detect them.

Assorted DEA reports claim that Colombian drug cartels have at least 40 of these custom-built subs, while Mexican cartels have even more. Usually made of fiberglass and powered by a 300- to 350-horsepower diesel engine, these narco subs are manned by a crew of three or four and can transport thousands of pounds of cargo; indeed, it’s been estimated that the average 60-foot (18-meter) sub can carry several tons of cocaine.

A drug smuggling subOne of the tiny drug smuggling subs.

Smugglers’ Blues
The idea that there are cocaine smugglers out there operating radar-eluding submarines full of contraband might lead one to believe that the drug trade has entered a new era of James Bond–like technological proficiency, but there is nothing romantic (or even high-tech) about the job. In fact, the poor souls manning these vessels are often little more than virtual slaves who have been sent on a suicide mission by the crime syndicate in question in order to work off a debt or some other grievance. The crew members also have to deal with the risk of malfunctioning machinery, toxic fumes and the possibility of sinking, in addition to the obvious danger of being caught by the authorities.

On the upside, should their journey be successful, crew members can settle their beef with the crime gang and make as much as $1,500 for two days’ work. That may seem like a paltry amount considering the dangers involved, but for the average Central American with few prospects and an average wage of $10 a day (at the high end), it’s a princely sum.

These subs have a range of approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers), but a typical voyage takes around 20 to 30 hours due to the relatively slow speed of the craft (11 miles or 18 km per hour). Further delays are common due to frequent stops to let the engines cool and the diesel fumes dissipate, and also to evade pursuit. The average sub has a tiny internal area, and the conditions inside are poor. Since they’re generally little more than enclosed cigarette boats, the crew members must remain seated throughout the trip, crawling from one end of the sub to the other to check the engines or use the toilet. They usually strip down to their underwear to endure the heat inside these vessels, which can exceed 100°F. The overpowering smell of diesel fuel and overflowing bucket toilets are also a constant presence.

Perched on the ramshackle floor of the sub, the captain usually has no view of the seas he’s navigating apart from the crude periscope that utilizes store-bought video cameras and plastic piping, with the resulting images visible on screens inside the sub. As a result, the captain and crew communicate constantly by radio or satellite phone with their guides on land, and must remain vigilant throughout the entire nerve-wracking journey to avoid the kinds of mistakes that can lead to being detected.

Periscope of subThis small periscope is all the captian has to guide the sub.

If Not for the Courage of the Fearless Crew...
So what’s it like to risk one’s life as the crew member of a narco sub? HIGH TIMES interviewed three such individuals working for a Colombia-based gang that sends subs to various points in Central America on a weekly basis. (Their names have been changed to protect these persons and their families.)

A crew captain with nearly a dozen runs under his belt, Jean Paul, 42, a French-born former naval officer, is a rare veteran of the narco-sub trade. He left the military more than six years ago and entered into several real-estate developments in Costa Rica. When his multimillion-dollar investments tanked due to the recession, some acquaintances hooked him up with the sub operators, giving him a way to dig himself out from a mountain of debt by applying his nautical experience.

Jean Paul says he is now debt-free and actually considering further property investments after just two years in the business. He says that nowadays he’s more valuable to his employers recruiting crew members and engineers than he is piloting the vessels, which means he can avoid the most serious risks.

"It’s a very dangerous game and generally the domain of the desperate," Jean Paul relates. "I was on two runs where we had to jettison the craft and sink it. One occasion saw the vessel taking on water, and another was put down after the Coast Guard began closing in."

Sinking a sub involves opening a number of portholes to let the water in. "Then it’s a matter of offloading as many bales of cargo as possible and getting out." On this particular occasion, Jean Paul and his two crewmates managed to swim ashore on the Guatemalan coast without further incident. They had started the journey in Colombia.

Needless to say, getting murdered by your employer is often the reward for losing a load or bungling a trip. Jean Paul says he’s witnessed at least 10 people being killed, usually crew members or cartel employees who were shot due to incompetence or betrayal. "Funny, I’ve never seen anyone drown," he adds. "It’s always man-on-man stuff."

Despite this, Jean Paul says he’s more concerned by the other unpleasant aspects of the job. "Diesel fumes can kill you too, and the stench of another guy’s shit for two days isn’t nice either. Both are usually worse than the prospect of a boat sinking."

Another person I spoke with is 33-year-old José, who was introduced via a mutual friend in El Salvador. A fisherman by trade, José was born in Guatemala and started his narco career after several bad fishing seasons forced him to find work as a runner for a cartel. His first job was collecting bales of weed or coke dumped by subs and boats offshore.

José reveals: "Many fishing boats in the region haven’t fished in years. They just collect bales, but keep their nets on deck to look legitimate." He says he would like to return to fishing one day, but for now the money is very good, and he’s got an ailing mother and four children to care for. "There is no way I could make $1,500 for two days’ work any other way," he says regarding his current employment as a narco sub crew member.

The third person I spoke with, 22-year-old Manuel, was recruited to the narco business at an early age in his Salvadoran village. Since the age of 13, he has worked a variety of jobs, but much like José, he never dreamed he would earn the kind of money that he does now for a two-day sub run.

Typical of the businesslike attitude shared by his colleagues, Manuel insists that smuggling narcotics is not necessarily an evil trade. "Gringos have a huge hunger for the cargo, and they always will," he says. "This business is very important for my people; many of them would not have food or shelter without it. It’s been a savior."