On Nov. 5 the Colombian Navy announced on Twitter that, aided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and local law enforcement, it had raided a makeshift boatyard in the Chocó area of Colombia. There it uncovered a high-capacity, 40 ft long, battery-powered narcosub. This sub could carry up to six metric tons of cocaine and was unique in several ways.
En operación conjunta, coordinada e interinstitucion fueron capturados once presuntos integrantes de una organización Narcotraficante. En la operación fue incautado un sumergible con capacidad para transportar hasta seis toneladas de alcaloides.
— Armada de Colombia (@ArmadaColombia) November 5, 2020
Previously captured narcosubs have been much smaller, as the trend for drug cartels has been to deploy smaller subs to avoid detection and disperse risks. As maritime expert H.I. Sutton writes in the US Naval Institute News,
Put into perspective, most narco submarines interdicted by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard carry around 1.6 metric tons of cocaine, worth approximately $30 to 35 million. The trend had been towards smaller payloads per trip, but the discovery of the new submarine points toward a trend reversal.
This one could carry four times that much. Unlike most other narcosubs, this one is also able to fully submerge, at least for short periods. Sutton explains:
Another significant difference compared to other narco-submarines is that this seized vessel is fully submersible, at least for short periods of time. Virtually all narco submarines interdicted at sea have been more correctly termed low-profile vessels (LPVs). Also known as semi-submersibles, these are craft designed to run exceptionally low in the water to avoid detection. But they cannot fully submerge. This submarine’s cylindrical hull, sealed roof hatch and hydroplanes all point to some degree of submerged running.
Most interesting, this sub, being purely electric battery-powered, has a very limited range. However, as USNI notes, the design shows that it is not intended to make a long journey to the U.S. on its own. According to Sutton in USNI News:
Underwater it uses batteries to power two electric motors. Ten tons of batteries give it an estimated endurance of 12 hours, which would equate to about 32 nautical miles if the submerged speed is around three knots. Clearly, even if the cruising speed is higher, an electric submersible like this cannot make the entire trip unaided. A towing ring on the nose points to the answer: the craft is designed to be towed by a larger vessel until close to its destination. It would then make the final leg on its own. Once unloaded, it would be scuttled and join the hundreds of discarded narcosubs which litter the seafloor.
Able to carry an estimated $120 million worth of drugs, the reported $1.5 million construction cost proves to be an excellent investment; even if some are captured before the sail.