ALDÁN, Spain—In a craggy bay here early one morning last year, police watched three men clamber from the hatch of a curious vessel barely breaking the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
The 66-foot craft slowly sank as the men swam ashore, where officers grabbed two of them. Police struggled for two days to tow their waterlogged quarry to port, where they found roughly 3 metric tons of cocaine onboard, worth some $100 million.
For the first time, they had captured a formidable vessel in drug runners’ flotilla: a trans-Atlantic “narco-submarine.”
South America is awash with cocaine, and traffickers are turning to new ways of getting it to Europe, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says may have surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest market.
Narco-subs have ferried cocaine from Colombia to Central America since the 1990s and recently proliferated. Rarely true submarines, they are generally semisubmersibles that float mostly but not completely below the waterline and are nearly undetectable. Most are built out of sight in South American jungles for around $1 million apiece.