Narco submarines: journey to the bottom of the sea of evil
As he peered through the hatch of a submersible carrying 1,202 kilos of cocaine to a desolate beach in Central America, in the middle of bad weather and with broken engines, Jaime Valencia Mina saw a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flying exactly over his head.
The fisherman from the impoverished port of Buenaventura, Colombia, already knew what awaited him that July afternoon of 2018 in the middle of the Pacific.
He had lived it in 2011 in the Caribbean, in another larger and more spectacular submersible that today adorns a naval museum in Honduras. On that occasion he served six years in prison in the United States, now he is spending 27. Lesson not learned, admitted Valencia from a federal prison in Florida.
"Always the need to live better, the hope of buying a big house, of paying for college for my children and I like the good life," he said. "I already had a small house, I wanted a bigger house, that's what pressured me, but it wasn't worth it," he added.
Valencia, 53, is just one of the hundreds of humble fishermen from Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico who languish in U.S. jails sentenced to higher penalties than those served by the owners of the drugs they transported. They are the residual factor in the new bonanza of cocaine exports from Colombia in claustrophobic and unsafe narco submarines that arrive at ports in Central America and Mexico overcoming all kinds of dangers.
"It's a suicidal experience, a tragedy," warns Valencia. "People don't know if they're going to survive or not".
According to the National Navy of Colombia, this year was broken record catches of this type of vessel. According to the institution's spokeswoman, as of October, 29 had been captured, compared to 26 in the same month last year.
Some Navy officials said the figures are the result of greater efficiency on the part of the authorities. One of them, Nelson Ahumada, commander of the 4th Marine Infantry Brigade, calculates that the success rate of his force is 70%.
In the background there is a less debatable reality: Colombia remains the world's largest exporter of cocaine and 90% of the product leaves by sea.
Last summer, images of a U.S. Coast Guard patrol chasing a semi-submersible, while one of the officers shouts in improvised Spanish "Altow tu barcow'', became viral and revealed the narco's extraordinary merchant capacity: the value of the cocaine seized exceeded $200 million, a figure equivalent to 20% of the annual defense budget of all Central American countries. In a single ship.
Another former crew member interviewed by Univision, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, assured that the possibility of circumventing surveillance at sea is higher when drug traffickers, owners of the merchandise, bribe authorities to obtain confidential information on the location of the Colombian and U.S. Coast Guard frigates.
"It is known that in the Caribbean a U.S. submarine patrols the entire Gulf of Mexico," said 'Álvaro, a former narco submarine captain whose real name he asked us to omit for security reasons.
The "false positives"
The narco submarine bonanza has other benefits for the narcos.
Many of the sailors, sentenced to 10, 15 and even 20 years after pleading guilty, suspect that they have been betrayed from U.S. jails by powerful drug traffickers seeking to reduce their sentences. The montage is known as "false positive" and assumes that the narcos reveal to the authorities the location of the boats after they finance and organize the trips. This is a reduction in their sentences for collaborating with the justice system.
"The system is totally flawed, corrupt, of every 10 trips that go out, seven are delivery of false positives," said Valencia in the middle of a recording that recalls that the call "comes from a federal prison".
Half a dozen Florida criminal lawyers and a former DEA agent told Univision that the phenomenon denounced by Valencia is real and worrisome, but very difficult to prove.
"It is a system in which the powerful narco wins because he reduces his sentence, the prosecutor wins because he scores a victory, and the DEA agent wins because he adds points to his career, and the only one who loses is the poor fisherman who has no information to offer," said a lawyer who has defended several of these crew members.
The capos are also protected by the secrecy of the cooperation agreements in which almost never are revealed the operations that contributed to reducing their sentences, adds the lawyer who asked not to be identified so as not to indispose the prosecutors.
Dream of cash
Most of the captains of the submersibles are peasants of African descent from the Pacific coast of Colombia who know the whims of the sea and who, for payments of 40,000 to 50,000 dollars, assume the risk of commanding artisanal boats to the coasts of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua or southern Mexico.
According to Valencia, the engineer is paid 25,000 dollars and each sailor 10,000 dollars. Depending on the degree of confidence, before sailing, the crew receives a "suplido" or advance payment of between 30% and 50% of what was promised. The rest is given to them after the drug arrives at its destination.
For a fisherman who earns no more than $200 a month, the payments are a significant economic relief.
In the midst of the few calm moments of the voyage, crew members share investment plans with each other, recalls Alvaro. They talk about buying houses, farms, cars, paying debts and having parties.
"We all start to say: 'I want it for this or that,'" recalls Álvaro.
The ex-captains interviewed agree that the days inside the closed boats, under infernal heat and with little oxygen are extremely tense. There is no space or time to sleep. And hunger is not an acute problem.
"It lasts to survive," Valencia said. "Every two or three days they make necessities. You slow down the boat a little and open the hatch a little to throw that out in plastic bags.
On their journey through the Caribbean, Valencia and its three companions were on the verge of being rammed by a cargo ship that saw them approach their fragile vessel. At the last moment they managed to avoid it, he explained.
"There was little air in the cabin and that was very dangerous. What we were most afraid of was that we were going to faint or die during the trajectory," he said.
Going through the hatch was not an option.
"It is very dangerous to open the hatch because there are waves of three, five meters and many winds. Then the water enters the cabin and it can be shipwrecked.
Valencia's fear of lack of air was intensified by a tragic memory. His brother Luis Alberto died at the age of 60 in a semi-submersible.
"His pressure went up and he suffered a heart attack due to the high temperature in the engine. He was working as a mechanic," the fisherman recalled.
The most distressing thing, adds Álvaro, is the uncertainty of not knowing if the coastguards are chasing them and, when you least think about it, hearing the screams of the patrolmen on deck hitting the hatch.
"You don't just see things nearby. Suddenly the light of a boat or the lights of a fisherman's net," says Álvaro. "But we're not looking up, we don't know if we have the helicopter, we don't know if we have the plane, we don't know if we have the Navy frigate behind us or we don't know what's going on.
The last option
Valencia is one of 12 siblings of a very humble family from Buenaventura, sons of a farmer and a dressmaker.
He worked since he was a child with a well-to-do family who took him with them and took him as a messenger to their home in the port, remembers Lucía Valencia, his sister.
At the age of 15 he returned home and studied up to the second year of secondary school. As an adult, he moved like many of his countrymen through the usual temporary sea and land jobs of Buenaventura. From time to time, his brother, the engineer, took him as an assistant on the fishing boats. He traveled to Venezuela "when everything was good over there" and worked in construction and mining. When all the doors closed on him, he returned to Cali without money.
"Sometimes he would get a job, take a trip and be unemployed for two or three months waiting for a chance," explained Lucía.
Lucía is the closest sister to Valencia. Both agree that there is no one more important person in their lives than the other. So when Lucía stopped receiving her brother's usual daily phone call in the second week of July 2011, she was worried. Finally, Valencia called her from the United States.
"I said, 'Brother, what happened? What are you doing there? Then he said to me: 'No, I can't explain right now on the phone, but I had a problem, little sister, and I'm around. That's all he told me".
Lucía understood what "the problem" was about a month later, when she was called to say that a bomb had exploded in her brother's house in Cali's El Limonar neighborhood, where he lived with his wife and children, she says.
"It was good that there were no human losses, but there was a lot of material loss," he said.
Both Lucía and Valencia's wife and children had to leave in fear and start a new life in another city. Neither the wife nor the children spoke to her again in Valencia, according to Lucía.
"That's very hard for any father, for any human being that happens to him. You expect the family to be with you and support you. Right? It's the most logical thing, but because of that people hid, they left. Nobody wanted to know anything.
The first Caribbean submarine
Semi-submersibles generally start from the Pacific coast of Colombia. Coast Guard officials told Univision that the region's geography favors activity. Most of the cocaine is shipped from this unpopulated area of mangroves through which labyrinthine forks of rivers and lagoons open. The stations of the cocaine production chain in this region of the country are almost contiguous: coca is planted in the nearby mountains of the coastal departments of Cauca and Nariño; it is processed and packed in neighboring laboratories and then taken to the solitary coasts of the coast where the submersibles wait.
"Less than 10 kilometers from where we are, we could find a coca plantation," said Ahumada Ojeda, on the edge of an artillery boat off the coast of Tumaco.
Ahumada said the chain of business is under the control, among others, of "residuals," as the former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are known in military jargon, who did not take part in the peace process with the government.
Álvaro, the former captain of submersibles, says that in the beginning, the boats arrived at the coast of Mexico, but the trip was very long. It could take 10 to 12 days. Then they went to Guatemala "but now the country through which most drug transit is done is the country of Honduras.
Álvaro says two factors favor Honduras as a port of destination: geography and lack of vigilance.
In its first failed attempt to introduce the drug into Honduras, Valencia did not leave the Pacific. The semi-submersible he commanded left the port of San Rafel del Moján, on Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, where the apparatus had been built. The ship was not carrying drugs, but was loaded with five tons a few miles off the coast of Colombia's Guajira, Valencia said.
Five miles from the Honduran beach, the ship was spotted by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. According to a law that has not been disputed by any Latin American country, U.S. authorities are empowered to intercept at sea any vessel that does not display the flag of a country.
The apparatus of Valencia did not have a flag. The crew members were arrested and taken to the United States. Seven years later, Valencia fell again. Again he called his sister.
"He told me: 'Sister I hope I am strong, I love you very much, I love my whole family'. But he called me, 'I can't talk much,' he said, 'but I'm here again,'" recalls Lucía.
Valencia still regrets it.
"I've lost everything," she said. "I'm practically dead in life.