In Depth

How ‘narco-submarine’ carrying £85m cocaine was captured off Spain

One crew member still on the loose after craft intercepted off the coast of Galicia

A 22-metre trans-Atlantic submarine carrying £85m of cocaine was intercepted by police off the coast of Spain earlier this week, giving a glimpse of the scale and sophistication of the global drugs trade.

On Wednesday, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said that the chances were a large portion of the cargo was destined for the streets of Britain.

The craft - dubbed the “narco-submarine” in the press - was reportedly travelling from Colombia and carrying 3,000kg - roughly three tonnes - of high-quality cocaine.

How was it discovered?

The EU’s Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre tipped off Spainish authorities that a semi-submersible carrying cocaine was crossing the Atlantic, prompting a coordinated air-and-sea search.

It was floated to the surface off the coast of Galicia, north-west Spain, on Monday night and two Ecuadorian crew members were arrested attempting to swim ashore in bad weather. A third, a Spanish national, remains on the loose after managing to elude the joint forces of the Spanish National Police, Civil Guard and Coast Guard. Police forces from the UK, Portugal, the US and Brazil were also involved.

The crew had apparently been travelling for more than 20 days, and had spent another seven waiting off Galicia’s coast in worsening weather for their cargo to be picked up. “Conditions at sea meant that the [craft] wasn’t able to deliver the drugs to a second vessel,” said a statement by the Guardia Civil.

“Its crew members then headed towards the coast, where they scuttled and abandoned the vessel. The manoeuvre was detected by a Guardia Civil patrol using night-vision goggles, who then noted the boat’s arrival point and the subsequent fleeing of its crew.”

Dozens of officials were reportedly waiting ashore, hoping to witness the transfer of the cocaine to a pick-up boat.

The length of the journey means the craft would have had to have been refuelled as it crossed the ocean. As such, police are now expanding their investigation to potential accomplices.

Where did the submarine come from?

“Investigators believe the 22-metre submarine was built in a clandestine shipyard in South America, probably in Suriname or Guyana,” El Pais reports. The craft is estimated to have cost £2.5 million to build, a sum that underlines the resources, expertise, and rewards available to trafficking gangs.

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There have long been suspicions that gangs use submarines to evade detection transporting cocaine to Europe.

“Some of those arrested at one time or another said in some police investigation that, yes, the drug arrived in submarines, but so far there was no evidence,” Marta Fontan, a journalist at Faro de Vigo, told Euronews. “It is the first time that it is known that a submarine that leaves South America loaded with cocaine arrives here.”

The Guardian adds that “Galicia’s rias, or inlets, have long been a smuggler’s paradise, but in recent years local drug clans have used them as the main European entry point of Colombian cocaine.”

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