MEXICO CITY – 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 believed to contain cocaine, possibly tons. Its disheveled crew of four emerged in stocking feet and baggy shorts, saying they had shipped out from Colombia a week earlier under threat of death.
Mexico’s military confirmed Thursday that the men are Colombian but offered little new information on its 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 likely amounted to “tons.”
The unusual episode suggests that the government, already struggling against drug traffickers by land and air, faces a vexing, new undersea front.
Colombian drug suppliers have increasingly tried to use small, semi-submersible craft to smuggle their illicit cargo north toward their eventual markets, mainly in the United States. Colombian forces and the U.S. Coast Guard have seized more than a dozen such boats, a handful while en route to Mexico and Central America, during the past two and a half years.
U.S. officials say the craft are being used more often because they are more difficult to detect by radar. The seizures represent a fraction of the 40 or so 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 Ocean about 125 miles from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, was the first off the coast of Mexico, authorities said.
“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 Latin American nations, Mexico does not have a submarine force because it was considered expensive and unnecessary.
In a statement, the Mexican navy said its forces moved in on the vessel after receiving intelligence from “national and international agencies.” 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, said they were fishermen who had been kidnapped and forced to make the journey by men who threatened their families. The sailors said that 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.
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 keep most of their form under water, though they lack the diving and resurfacing abilities of true submarines.