Super-speedboats piloting Colombia's cocaine trade
Almost a ton of drugs leaves the country daily in 30-foot 'go-fasts': a risky, but lucrative, smuggling business.
By Martin Hodgson | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
TUMACO, COLOMBIA - Two years ago, Arsenio's brother and 1,540 pounds of
cocaine disappeared on the way to Panama in a small
After his brother's death, Arsenio (who spoke on condition that his real
name not be used) could have cut all ties with Colombia's lucrative
cocaine and heroin trade.
Today, on the deck of a restaurant overlooking the black waters of Tumaco
Bay, the mechanic and small-time marijuana dealer glances
nervously over his shoulder before admitting that he chose not to.
"Of course it's dangerous," says Arsenio, who now works fine-tuning high-powered
"go-fast" speedboat motors for smugglers. "You're on
the open sea with four-meter [12-foot] waves.
"But people from the coast are used to the sea breeze," he says. "You have
to die sometime. And for that much money, it's worth the
Go-fast pilots like Arsenio's brother are becoming an increasingly vital
piece of Colombia's drug trade – and one law enforcement officials
are having a particularly hard time combatting. The boats' fiberglass hulls barely register on a radar screen. Painted a dull blue, they are
almost impossible to spot with the naked eye – especially amid the drizzle off the Pacific coast, one of the wettest spots on earth.
Easily concealed along Colombia's 1,700 miles of swampy coastland, the
boats leave the country today at the rate of more than a dozen
per month – each carrying at least two tons of cocaine and heroin.
"You can be in a customs launch, and the boat you're waiting to intercept
can pass you 50 meters [150 feet] away," complains Naval
Intelligence officer Capt. Fernando Torres. "You can hear it, but you don't see a thing."
Pacific coast smugglers head for the beaches of Panama and Costa Rica,
or strike out westwards to the Galápagos Islands, where they
pass drugs on to cargo freighters. From Colombia's Northern coast, go-fasts aim for Caribbean islands.
Depending on their drugs' destination, smugglers dump them on an isolated
beach, hand them over to local fishermen, or leave them
floating at sea for a later pickup. The contraband is then shipped to the US mainland in freight containers, or carried on small planes or
commercial airline flights.
For longer trips, Global Positioning Systems devices enable smugglers to
rendezvous with fishing boats fitted with extra gas tanks; some
boats can make it all the way to Mexico.
But even with sophisticated navigation and communication systems, crossing
the ocean in a 30-foot open boat is a dangerous – and
potentially deadly – undertaking.
"Hours at sea, with no points of reference, and no back-up. [Go-fast pilots]
are real experts," says Captain Esaud Becerra, head of
intelligence at the Tumaco naval base. "They have no formal training, but they never get lost. Sometimes you have to admire them."
The hazards are enormous, but so are the pay-offs: According to police
sources, a go-fast pilot can earn up to $10,000 on a long voyage. In
this town of ramshackle houses, it is easy to imagine why a boatman might swap shrimp fishing for drug running.
In addition, over the past three years, an illegal paramilitary army known
as the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) has taken
control of this part of the country's Pacific coast, forming lucrative protection deals with smugglers.
US and Colombian officials say there is also evidence that paramilitary
groups are directly involved in go-fast shipping. In July, the
Colombian navy destroyed an AUC-operated cocaine laboratory and captured five boats north of the Mejicano River.
Despite the dangers, smugglers have a few advantages. Once a go-fast reaches
the open sea, it is almost impossible to detect. When
authorities do spot a boat, they're hard-pressed to catch it. Fitted with up to five 250-horsepower outboard motors, go-fasts can reach
speeds of 50 knots (about 60 mph) – faster than most Navy vessels.
Authorities have had some success catching the smugglers, thanks largely
to tip-offs and wiretaps. This year the Colombian navy has
caught 11 go-fasts carrying almost nine tons of cocaine. The latest, in May, held 2.25 tons.
But smugglers are constantly developing new techniques. According to Arsenio,
drug cartels are already at work on new generation of
go-fasts – with hi-tech turbines that let them skim over the water at more than 60 mph.
Though the Colombian navy is working on an "anti-go-fast" boat designed
to pursue traffickers on the open sea, critics are skeptical that
officials will ever keep pace with smugglers. Two years ago, police discovered a half-completed 75-foot submarine that they believe was
designed to carry up to 10 tons of drugs.
"The drug smugglers make so much money, they are going to be on the cutting
edge of technology," says one US official involved in
antidrug efforts. "Whatever's the biggest and the fastest, they're going to have it – before we do."