Drug sub in Andes linked to Russians

Click to follow

When police found a russian-engineered submarine under construction on the outskirts of landlocked Bogota last week, one senior officer swore they had stumbled on "irrefutable proof of the presence of the Russian mafia" in Colombia.

When police found a russian-engineered submarine under construction on the outskirts of landlocked Bogota last week, one senior officer swore they had stumbled on "irrefutable proof of the presence of the Russian mafia" in Colombia.

Before the 100ft vessel could be bolted together in order to "run silent, run deep" with cargos of cocaine and heroin, the shipbuilders managed to run away, leaving behind incriminating blueprints labelled with Cyrillic letters.

No arrests have been made, although officials said they also found the names and telephone numbers of two American suspects at this dry-dock high in the Andes. Three former Soviet naval engineers are believed to have been involved. A closed-circuit video camera on top of a brick warehouse in rural Facatativá, 18 miles west of Bogota, tipped off workers to the raid by drug enforcement squads, and they made a hasty escape through cow pastures and fields of carnations.

The national police chief, Luis Ernesto Gilibert, told reporters he suspected drug traffickers from Miami, Moscow, and Medellin had pooled their resources to construct a virtually undetectable method of transporting huge quantities of narcotics. The estimated $10m (£7m) cost of this "narco-sub" would have been easily recovered by selling their first cargo: almost 200 tons, over one-third of Colombia's annual export of cocaine, could have fitted aboard, according to officials. Colombia is the only South American nation with ports on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, and 60 per cent of its illegal drugs are smuggled out by sea. Each section of the submarine would have fitted on to a standard container lorry for a trip to the shore, where the engine would have been fitted.

The half-built submarine was about a fifth the scale of the doomed Kursk, and one-third smaller than the second-hand Soviet navy submarine with which a Russian immigrant in Miami tried to secure a $35m (£24.5m) deal between the Russian mafia and a Colombian cocaine baron back in 1995.

Fidel Azula, a former submarine captain, said: "It was unmistakably of superb naval construction, superior to anything in the Colombian navy."

Police have twice intercepted two-man fibreglass submarines which ferried cocaine packets to freighters off the Caribbean port of Santa Marta, but this bottom-crawling mother vessel was a bold investment for mega-shipments of narcotics. It had a double steel hull and pressurised diving propellers capable of descending to 325 feet, and would be capable of speeds up to 10 knots. There is little doubt that it would have carried torpedoes.

The Russian ambassador to Colombia, Vitaly Markov, strongly denied any involvement by his nation in the construction of this submarine, but Colombian officials suggested this might be a breakthrough in tracing direct links to the Russian underground.

The head of intelligence for Washington's Drug Enforcement Agency, Steven Castel, said: "We have seen Russian criminal organisations that have made contact with both Colombian and Mexican organised crime." But he did not speculate on their role here. Russia's gangland has atomised into 5,000 to 8,000 groups, a total of around 100,000 members, according to the Russian Interior Ministry. Thirty of those groups are active abroad.

US intelligence agents have detected Russian weaponry reaching the Marxist guerrillas, who now control 40 per cent of Colombia. With cocaine prices in the former Soviet Union even higher than in the US, trading drugs for weapons makes sense for both sides.

Right-wing paramilitary militias have also been implicated in the drug trade. Russian mobsters and renegade military officers ally with the small-time druglords who depend on the guerrillas for protection of their illicit crops, laboratories and airstrips. They supply arms for both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and their foes, the National Liberation Army, in exchange for cocaine shipments of up to 20 tons at a time.

The former head of Colombia's national police, Jose Serrano, has testified to the US Congress that rebels are supplementing their stockpiles of old weapons from Central American conflicts. "This is a guerrilla force that is extremely well armed with money financed by narcotics trafficking," he said. "We believe that there are new arms coming in from the former Soviet Union."

Helicopters and even submarines are high on the rebels' wish lists, particularly as Washington has pledged military hardware for a war on drug traffickers with its $1.3bn contribution to President Pastrana's Plan Colombia.