What It's Like to Pilot a Colombian Narco Submarine

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Spiegel has an incredible profile of one man who piloted one of the many custom-built submersibles used by Colombian gangs to transport drugs. It sounds like a miserable experience, as these boats are decidedly low-tech. They're built fast and cheap without amenities for the crew.

The boat was divided into three sections. A hatch in the bow led to the cargo hold, which was barely a meter (3 feet) high. The crew had to crawl through the cargo hold on hands and knees, passing the packages of drugs, to reach the control station and the sleeping berths.

Alonso positioned himself at the wheel, next to a GPS device for navigation and a radio. The diesel tanks were underneath the berths. The engine room, containing two turbo diesel engines, was behind Alonso. There was no light, there were no toilets, and there was barely enough room to stand up or lie down to sleep.

At around 8 p.m., the tide was high and the night sufficiently dark as the ocean water tugged at the submersible. A speedboat pulled the vessel out to sea, where the crew started the engines. They accelerated to 12 knots and set off on a 270-degree course heading west, toward the open ocean. The guard provided by the drug mafia for each transport, armed with a revolver and an assault rifle, stood at the door to the engine room. It was incredibly hot in the submersible, where the engines remove oxygen from the air and enrich it with carbon monoxide, despite ventilation pipes.

"You constantly feel like you're suffocating," says Alonso. "Every four hours, we reduced the speed from 12 to six knots. Then we opened the hatch in the front for exactly one minute, let some fresh air in and accelerated again." The four-man team worked in shifts, while Alonso kept monitoring the route. Once they were in the open ocean, the man with the assault rifle gave him a piece of paper showing the target position. Their instructions were to arrive there on a specific day and at a specific time.

Each of the men tried to sleep after his shift, but the stench and the noise on board made this impossible. They had to drink copious amounts of water to make up for the buckets of sweat constantly running off their bodies. Their main source of nourishment was condensed milk, the Peruvian "Leche Gloria" brand. The stench from fecal matter, which couldn't be disposed of during the trip, soon became almost unbearable.

Read the full story at Spiegel.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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