When authorities in Spain captured the first known drug submarine to cross the Atlantic, questions soon surfaced about how such a journey could be possible.
Journalist Javier Romero reconstructs the sub's building and voyage in a new book, "Operación Marea Negra, "or "Operation Black Tide." Romero, a journalist who reports on drug trafficking for La Voz de Galicia in Spain, recounts the voyage of the 66-foot vessel, which was assembled deep in the Amazon rainforest and set sail from the coast of Brazil with three tons of cocaine on board.
The book also explores the lives of the sub's three-member crew, from its captain, a once-promising boxer, to the childhood friends who would later end up his accomplices.
In an interview with InSight Crime, Romero talks about his book, his impressions of the case, the crew members' recent convictions and the new reality that drug submarines from South America can reach Europe.
InSight Crime (IC): In what context did the seizure of the narco-submarine take place in Galicia in 2019?
Javier Romero (JR): Galicia was a cradle and main gateway for Colombian cocaine in the 1980s, with the linking of the Medellín and Cali cartels with Galician drug traffickers, who were formerly tobacco smugglers. Additionally, there is the geographical position of the coast. If you analyze the Galician coast, they are estuaries, in other words, a coast with many nooks and crannies for unloading, and that is why for more than 30 years, organized crime has never left.
Now we are in the third generation, but everything comes from that. Everything came from a common effort, with tobacco smuggling networks that basically did the same thing. A mother ship brought the tobacco and smugglers simply went out in boats to collect the goods and then distribute it. These ships with tobacco became ships with cocaine, which, instead of coming from central Europe, came with cocaine from South America, mainly from Colombia.
As far as drug trafficking is concerned, Colombia and Galicia have a very close relationship. Why? Well, first, because we speak the same language, that is fundamental. Relating to a Spaniard is not the same as with a Frenchman, a German, a Dutchman or even a Portuguese. There is a relationship of trust. We are talking about organized crime, a business where treason is the order of the day.
IC: Apart from Galicia, the book also mentions that there is also an important narco-submarine route through Africa.
JR: According to the Colombian Navy, at least two narco-submarines are arriving in Europe through Spain, and two are arriving in Africa each year. Africa is much closer to Brazil than Europe. The increase in crops in the producing countries has inflated all the drug trafficking routes worldwide, not only the transoceanic one that is directed to Europe. Now, the entire West African Coast, from the Gulf of Guinea to the north, crossing the entire Maghreb, is a large cocaine warehouse stop on the way to Europe.
Who makes use of these routes? The traditional hashish networks, which are the same networks that move the cocaine that arrives from South America, from Venezuela or Brazil, that, as you know, is a country that is experiencing a spectacular narco-trafficking boom.
In Northern Africa, hashish has always been the main drug but Colombian organizations have managed to convince the Maghreb themselves to trade cocaine by taking advantage of the Gibraltar Strait, which is a very short distance away. But, the drug first arrives in Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, (or) Cape Verde. The networks have been evolving, they are dedicated to cocaine trafficking and also hashish trafficking, but to a much lesser extent. Before it was 100 percent hashish, and today it is more than 60% cocaine.
IC: Returning again to the dynamics of drug trafficking in Europe, what is the role of European organizations and what is the role of the Latin American diaspora in Europe?
JR: On the one hand, there are what are called offices, which are usually in Madrid, Barcelona, Andalucía, Málaga and Algeciras. All the organizations historically in Colombia, the big suppliers, have their people here. On the other hand, we have very strong organizations of narco-boaters in Galicia, a large number of people who are subcontracted to go to the coordinates of fast boats.
IC: So, the role of the Galicians is to act as narco-boatmen?
JR: Yes, but due to the drug trafficking problem on the Andalusian coast with Morocco and on the Galician coast, in Spain, a decree was issued outlawing the manufacture and use of boats of a length exceeding 8 meters. It can be done, but you have to ask for a permit and you have to justify what you are going to do with it. Spain was the first country in Europe to issue the decree. But what have these organizations done? They go to Portugal, which is next door. We here in Galicia live thirty kilometers from Portugal.
IC: So that explains why the narco-submarine was initially headed towards Lisbon.
JR: In front of Lisbon, 269 miles in a straight line. Those were the coordinates where two go-fast (boats) had to go to collect the goods and the crew of the narco-submarine. But the problem was that the engine of one of the go-fasts was damaged and that thwarted everything.
IC: The damage to the engine was a turning point. In the book, there is the feeling that everything was going very well until that moment. The problem with the operation was at the reception point and that ended up also being a stroke of luck for the authorities to find the narco-submarine.
JR: There was also another factor, bad weather forced them to use the satellite phone. Then, those communications were located with the help of the English.
And when those 72 hours passed, and they have the narco-submarine going around erratically, those on the boats do not leave because it was a hornet's nest of patrols. Even the United States had a ship in the area that joined the operation. Of course, then that's where plan B arises and that's why they go to Galicia, because coincidentally the submarine pilot is Galician.
IC: The book also mentions the involvement of the Urabeños, a Colombian drug trafficking organization also known as the Gulf Clan. What would be the role of this group?
JR: According to police information here and in Colombia, the Gulf Clan use narco-submarines a lot, especially in the Pacific. They have structures for manufacturing and the ability to assemble shipyards. They are the ones behind all that and they have the merchandise for several organizations that supply different ships that pass the drugs from Colombia to Brazil. This has been confirmed by the Colombian Navy itself.
IC: The narco-submarines or semi-submersibles coming out of the Pacific are generally much more basic, but the Pacific has the ability to reach Europe or Africa. Where could that technical knowledge come from?
JR: That is explained by the Colombian Navy itself and it's in the book. Plans and documentation in Russian have been found in clandestine workshops over the years. But also, what the Colombian Navy concludes, in the interviews I did, is that there is a school of builders in the country.
IC: Is it local knowledge?
JR: Yes, because it has been many years. We're talking about since the mid-90s. The first submarine ship to be seized was in '93. In '94 another one is seized, and from there it has continued. And it's evident, if you look at the photos, how they've evolved. I took a picture in Cartagena de Indias, at a military base in Cartagena, with the second one that was seized. It was like the Beatles' submarine, it was yellow. So it had a wide shape and then we had another next to it, from '95 or '96, which was like a short torpedo, cylindrical but very elongated. It was like a missile and had an engine like the one that ended up in Galicia, an engine with a propeller.
IC: In 2021, 31 narco-submarines were seized in Colombia, a large number. Then there were all those undetected. What does this mean?
JR: That shows you the extent to which the parallel drug trafficking industry related to narco-submarines has developed. It takes between a month, or a month and a half to manufacture just one. And I insist that the industry you have with narco-submarines is exactly the same as the one we have in Spain with boats.
IC: Why use such a risky smuggling method, when there are other forms, such as container contamination?
JR: Container smuggling is rarely a concern here. Galicia has a long tradition as a fishing village. Although throughout Puerto de Marín's drug trafficking history, containers from Turbo (Colombia) are arriving on a weekly basis, normally we go out on boats or sailboats. The new generation of people who are getting fully involved in transoceanic drug trafficking are kids who go and across the Atlantic by sailboat. The organizations of Galicia are not specialists in containers, they are specialists in sailing. In short, this is our essence.
IC: How does payment occur?
JR: In product, a percentage of the merchandise in 90 percent of cases. That's why there's so much pure and cheap cocaine. In Galicia, you can buy a kilo of coca at 26,000 or 27,000 Euros.
IC: Below the European average.
JR: Yes, below average, and much purer than what you are going to buy in Europe. Cocaine in Madrid has already passed through two kitchen filters and you are going to pay 33,000 or 35,000 Euros for it. That is why so many traffickers from Spain come to Galicia and why many people are arrested with stashes hidden in their car. They come from other parts of Spain to pick up the product here that is cheaper and of better quality.
*This interview has been edited for space and content purposes