How a Drug Runner Built a Fleet of Submarines in the Middle of a South American Jungle

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Oct. 8 2013 12:11 PM

The High Seas

How a high school-educated drug smuggler built a fleet of submarines—in the middle of the jungle—to ferry cocaine to the United States.

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The Mahecha ring's submarines could submerge to 60 feet, go 10 days without refueling, and glide underwater for up to 18 hours at a time.

Photo by Jim Popkin

Quintero accepted the job offer, as coached. He retired from the navy and began training as a crew member on one of Mahecha’s coke-toting submarines. He was now on the inside of an ingenious criminal enterprise.

Like any good HR department, the drug traffickers provided an introductory packet to new employees. “The area where the project is being developed is tropical and there are lots of bugs,” it advised. It asked Quintero to get “vaccinated against yellow fever,” warned him about the possibility of experiencing claustrophobia during long weeks spent in the cramped submarine and, ominously, requested his blood type. From the beginning, Quintero testified, he knew the danger his work posed. “I was fully aware I could never make mistakes,” he said. “They would have made me and my family disappear.”

The DEA agents who operated in Bogotá and Cartagena were not about to allow that to happen. Working with their Colombian counterparts, they opened a massive investigation in spring 2010 and began exploiting the names, cellphone numbers, and secret locations that Quintero was regularly turning over to investigators. The Colombian authorities got court authorization and recorded thousands of hours of phone calls. They secretly videotaped crew members at cafes, airports, even amusement parks. They monitored suspects’ email accounts. And then in the summer of 2010, they started to move in.

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Police raided Mahecha’s multiple cocaine-processing labs and discovered more than 4 tons of cocaine—easily worth tens of millions of dollars. They seized all three of his submarines in dramatic jungle raids, including an armed assault on one sub just hours before its maiden voyage.  And they piled on the arrests, even netting the drug kingpin himself. He had gone on the run and finally surrendered to authorities in Panama in 2011.

The Justice Department extradited Mahecha to the United States in February 2012, and he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine three months later. He’s now serving an 18-year sentence in a Florida prison.

Mahecha’s entire crew took a fall, too. Of the 22 submarine pilots, navigators, builders, accountants, and security guards indicted by the Justice Department, 20 have pleaded guilty. One is still at large, and the final defendant, Carlos Almanza, was convicted Monday in the Miami courtroom.

Almanza is one of the former Colombian naval officers. When he refused a plea deal and demanded a jury trial, prosecutors were forced to show their cards. They brought in the undercover informant, Quintero, to testify and were forced to admit that he is now living stateside. “Why did you come to the United States?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Lunkenheimer. “For the safety of my family,” Quintero replied. “We felt threatened.”

For much of the past two weeks, Courtroom 11-2 has been the site of a grim reunion. One after another, former members of the Colombian navy have been testifying against their old sub mate, Almanza, and explaining how they had hoped to cash in by piloting the tricked-out drug subs up the Pacific.

Mahecha was supposed to join his navy recruits on the witness stand, but prosecutors pulled his name at the last minute. For now, the drug kingpin will keep his side of the story to himself—how it was that one of South America’s most ambitious drug smugglers got played by an engine repairman.

Jim Popkin is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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