Last week, the DEA announced the indictment of 56 Colombian nationals for their involvement in drug trafficking from South America to Central America, Mexico and the United States using aircraft and submarines. The war on drugs is still on. And, apparently, so is the need the drug cartels have for submarines to smuggle dope.
The charges are the result of two operations led by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and Colombian agencies and authorities. In what is named Operation Seven Trumpets, a total of 34 defendants were charged in five separate indictments for their participation in Colombian-based drug trafficking organizations that used airplanes to transport thousands of kilograms of cocaine from clandestine airstrips located in South America, to clandestine airstrips in Central America, mostly Honduras.
The indictment alleges that the United States was the ultimate destination for the cocaine loads. According to the charges, the drug trafficking organizations used nominees to purchase U.S. registered planes. These nominees, in turn, submitted false documentation to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to hide the true identity of the purchasers, who were members of the drug trafficking organization.
In Operation Under the Sea, 22 defendants were charged for their alleged participation in a drug trafficking organization that built and used fully submersible and semi-submersible submarines to transport cocaine from Colombia to Central America, with the ultimate destination being the United States. If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of up to 60 years in prison.
Colombian drug smuggling groups have had a keen interest in using submarines to smuggle their best-selling product. In the early 1990s, the DEA managed to put an undercover agent in the inner circle of Ukrainian mob boss Ludwig Fainberg, nicknamed “Tarzan” because of his wild hair and muscular physique. He was the go-to-guy for Russian mobsters coming to America. Operating out of Miami, Florida, Tarzan did not need long to come into contact with the drug business there.
In his book Gangsters of Miami: True Tales of Mobsters, Gamblers, Hit Men, Con Men and Gang Bangers from the Magic City author Ron Chepesiuk describes how Tarzan told the undercover DEA agent about the connection between drug smuggling and submarines: “[He] explained he was in the midst of doing his biggest deal ever: the purchase of a Russian diesel-powered submarine and that the buyer was Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who, at the time, was in a bitter narco-terrorist war with the Colombian government. The Federal agents did not know whether it was the booze talking, Tarzan trying to make himself look important or whether the deal was actually going down. But they had to take the talk seriously. If Colombian drug traffickers could get their hands on a sub, it would be a big setback in the War on Drugs.”
Tarzan’s boast turned out to be for real. “Russian mobsters in St. Petersburg introduced Tarzan and his buyer to high ranking Russian naval officers who took them to Kronstadt Naval Base, which was littered with left over Cold War military equipment. They were shown diesel submarines and taken inside some of them. Tarzan and Almeida finally agreed on a 90-foot Foxtrot Class Attack Submarine that could carry up to 40 tons of cocaine. ‘The Colombians wanted to retrofit the sub to resemble an oceanographic research vessel. It would be based in Panama and deliver coke to another ship near San Diego.’” Chepesiuk wrote in his book Gangsters of Miami.
The deal eventually fell through and no submarine was sold at that time. But it showed that as early as the 1990s, drug cartels were very active in looking around for new innovative ways to smuggle their drugs and outsmart authorities. And as the recent operations show they have managed to build their own submarines no longer needing to buy from foreign sources. But the recent busts also show that authorities are learning, adapting, and are not easily outsmarted. And so the war continues.
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