Nation & World

Feds seize drug sub off coast of Honduras

A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 first spotted the knife-shaped craft skimming along the blue-green Caribbean waters off the coast of Honduras.

The crew notified a Customs and Border Patrol airplane, which flew down for a closer look, confirming everyone’s suspicions: It was a drug sub.

Boston-based Coast Guard Cutter Seneca soon stopped the “self-propelled semi-submersible” -- the first interdiction of such a sub in the Caribbean -- and detained the five crew members, who managed to sink the vessel with almost all of the 7.5 tons of cocaine loaded inside.

But Coast Guard, FBI and Honduran Navy divers, using sonar equipment, searched for almost two weeks since the mid-July event and found the submarine last Tuesday. It was floating about 50 feet below the surface and 16 nautical miles off shore near the Nicaraguan border, marking the feds’ first underwater removal of drugs from such a sub. The load’s value: $180 million.

“Working on a buoy deck is dangerous enough,” said Lt. Cmdr. Peter Niles, of the Charleston, S.C.-based Coast Guard Cutter Oak, which located the semi-submersible craft. “But this unique mission involved blending dive operations, boat operations and deck operations at the same time.”

The five sub crew members, who were allegedly transporting the cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, were stopped by the Coast Guard as they tried to escape in a yellow life raft. The defendants, from Colombia and Honduras, are awaiting detention hearings Friday in Tampa federal court on charges of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it in the United States.

Semi-submersible crafts are typically built in the jungles of Colombia by paramilitary rebel groups, which have deployed them in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean to transport cocaine to Mexico for distribution in the United States since the mid-‘90s, authorities say.

They’re less than 100 feet long — built of fiberglass and wood to evade radar detection — and can carry up to five crew members and 10 tons of drugs for thousands of miles. They have a small tower in the middle so the crew can look out, steering the subs with the aid of a GPS.

Traffickers design the crafts to sink rapidly when law enforcement officials attempt to stop them.

The vessels are responsible for transporting nearly one-third of all cocaine in the region.

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