Three corpulent men confined in a tiny space of only one and a half meters square. Stuck there for 27 long days. Sailing underwater, breathing wet and cold all the time. With hardly any room to move. Taking turns sleeping on some bales in the hold of the submersible they were traveling in.
The bathyscaphe did not have an evacuation system, so they relieved themselves in a bag. They ate canned food, industrial pastries, energy bars and cans of Red Bull to stay awake. They had skin sores, caused by the wetsuits impregnated with water and grease that they wore all the time. And only six narrow windows to look outside.
These three men crossed the Atlantic Ocean between October and November 2019, traveling more than 3,500 nautical miles between Brazil and Europe aboard a small and precarious handmade submarine made with fiberglass. A pileup that did not have large electronic devices for navigation. It was only equipped with conventional satellite phones, a compass mounted on the dashboard and a compass.
In that submersible they withstood terrible storms, terrifying waves, breakdowns of all kinds and were on one occasion about to be run over by a ship. Several times they thought they were going to die.
His goal was to bring to Europe a load of 3,068 kilos of cocaine in that submersible and charge for their services. And they were about to do it. For several days they managed to outwit the police and intelligence services specializing in drug trafficking in several countries. But in the end they lost the bet.
A police operation named “Black Tide”, which will go down in history for having captured the first narcosubmarine arriving in Europe from Latin America, disrupted their plans and ended with the arrest of these three men.
Now they have just been tried in Spain. They have pleaded guilty, although none of them have wanted to collaborate with the justice system for fear that the drug trafficking organization that sent the drug and the one for which it was destined could take retaliation against them or their families. The sentence is expected to come out shortly. Each of them can be sentenced to spend between 12 and 13 years in prison.
“Operación Marea Negra”, a book written by the journalist Javier Romero and published by Ediciones B, now recalls in detail the incredible journey of those men who for 27 days, and living with the filth, moved more than 3,000 kilos of cocaine at water level in that narco-submarine. The book, which collects testimonies from police officers, judges, specialists and witnesses to the event, traces in detail the chronicle of “Che”, as the submersible was baptized. A submersible designed to be able to navigate with most of the hull submerged, moving along the surface of the water and thus becoming invisible in the waves.
The tradition of narco-submarines started in Colombia in the 1990s, at the hands of ex-soldiers and engineers from the former USSR. The forerunner was Pablo Escobar, who never hid that in his marine fleet there were two such submarines.
“Now they are quite common: every year between 30 and 40 are intercepted in Colombia,” Javier Romero assures BBC Mundo. “And although numerous police reports from drug trafficking experts had indicated for some time that drug traffickers were using submarines to cross the AtlanticUntil “Che” was intercepted, no one had ever been apprehended,” he adds.
“Che” was built in a clandestine shipyard in the Amazon. The commission to pilot it fell to a former Spanish boxing champion and expert sailor named Agustín Álvarez. The rest of the crew was made up of two Ecuadorian cousins, also sailors: Luis Tomás Benítez Manzaba and Pedro Roberto Delgado Manzaba.
“The price agreed upon by the Manzabas was $5,000 up front each and, if all went well and the mission was successful, $$50,000 more per head. It is not known how much they were going to pay Agustín Álvarez, but police sources estimate that between $400,000 and $500,000 dollars,” says the author of “Marea Negra.” The Spanish Ministry of the Interior, for its part, calculates that the price of the cocaine transported by the narco-submarine would amount to 123 million euros.
Once loaded with 3,068 kilos of cocaine from Colombia, distributed in 152 bales, on the night of October 29, 2019, the three crew members released moorings and “Che” began his journey.
first they sailed down the Amazon river for 12 hours, making its way through the humidity, the mosquitoes, the mangroves and the exuberant vegetation. It is not ruled out that some vessel would spearhead them, opening the way for the narco-submarine and thus preventing it from colliding with any of the thousands of trunks of all thicknesses that float on the surface of the Amazon until they reach the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the fact that “Che” did not have a radar, automatic identification system, radio beacon or anything of the sort, everything was going quite well. Until November 5, 2019, the eighth day of the crossing, when the first clouds arrived. “The good weather is gone never to return, it left them defenseless to their fate. The next time they saw the sun shine against a blue sky, it was while they were walking in the courtyard of the Galician prison of A Lama”, Romero sentences.
As of November 7, and until the submarine reached the agreed point, three strong storms were primed, one after another, against “Che”, deteriorating it so much that it was about to sink and forcing its three crew members to live a real nightmare which lasted eight long days. Only on November 14 did the weather give them a break.
But, at least, the three crew members of “Che” had not been locked up in the narco-submarine, as apparently happened before when these submersibles crossed the Atlantic loaded with drugs. “They closed the hatch on the outside with padlocks, or another system, so that it would only open when they reached their destination. They gave the crew no choice but to finish the journey in order to survive. That or death. They did it because of the distrust that existed in the past with the recipients in Galicia, in case they stole merchandise”, one of the crew members of the “Che” has declared to the Spanish authorities.
Seventeen days after setting sail, and after crossing Atlantic waters for 4,931 kilometers, “Che” finally managed to overcome the main goal of the trip: the Azores Islands.
From there, the three crew members headed north to reach the agreed coordinates where the drug would be unloaded: 38º 14’47.4″; 14º52’01.1″. “Che” managed to reach that precise point, 270 miles in a straight line from Lisbon, albeit quite unsuccessful. But floating and with its crew still alive. Although by then the humidity and poor nutrition prolonged had already caused a dent in the health of its crew.
However, in the area marked on the map, at the place agreed to unload the cocaine, no one came out to meet “Che”. For some time, somewhere along the coast of Portugal, there had been two boats go fast -gliders designed and equipped only to traffic large quantities in the shortest possible time- prepared to pick up the drug. But one of them suffered a mechanical problem and could not set sail.
The drug trafficking organization, according to information collected by the Spanish police, then instructed the crew of “Che” to sail to Galicia, where Agustín, the pilot, is from. “In Galicia there is an important business of ‘drug dealers’ who are dedicated to making drug landings, ”says Javier Romero. In turn, and seeing that the initial plan set in motion by drug trafficking professionals had failed, Agustín decided to launch a Plan B and turn to two childhood friends.
- How drug trafficking infected Galicia in the 1980s and turned it into a gateway to Europe for drugs from Colombia
By then, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Center for Drug Trafficking (MAOC-N) was already aware that there was a boat with several tons of cocaine. Air and sea resources were launched in search of him, but they did not find him. They were looking for a fishing boat, a sailboat, a cargo ship… But not a semi-submersible. The investigation in Spain recalls that “a patrol of the Portuguese Navy and aerial means were on the coordinates in real time and They couldn’t detect it.”
The efforts made by the drug trafficking organization to unload the cocaine did not produce results. Although they sent a small ship to the south of the so-called Costa da Morte, in Galicia, to try to collect the merchandise, the Spanish Civil Guard had obtained information, and a helicopter and a boat positioned themselves in the area where it was going to be done. the landing of the drug. The small ship, seeing it, decided not to carry out the maneuver. And the bad state of the sea allowed the submersible to go undetected.
Desperate, without food or drinking water, the crew members of “Che” then decided to direct the narco-submarine to the smallest of the so-called Rías Baixas, an area of the Galician coast. Specifically, to the Aldán estuary, where the pilot of “Che” spent the summers as a child and who he knew quite well. “With great skill, because it is a complicated area for navigation, Agustín managed to get the submarine into that estuary and positioned it in front of a cove about 8 meters deep”, explains Javier Moreno.
At dawn on November 24, the crew of “Che” opened the spigot and the water began to enter “Che” until it sank. The three crew members jumped into the water, with the idea of returning to pick up the drug later. But there was no chance. Luis Tomás Benítez Manzaba was arrested on the same beach. His cousin, Pedro Roberto Delgado Manzaba, five hours later on a nearby highway, his hands burned from handling the narco-submarine. The captain, Agustín, was arrested five days later in a nearby house where he was hiding.
“When checking that precariousness and lack of space, it was amazing that they managed to reach Spain alive”, in the words of Sergeant Basante, the first policeman to step on the narco-submarine. “I have also been inside “Che” and the feeling of claustrophobia was enormous. Being there for 27 days must have been a real psychological torture for the crew”, says Javier Romero.
The 152 bales of cocaine were confiscated by security forces. Agustín and the Manzaba cousins were taken to prison, and there they remain waiting for their sentence to come out shortly. Also four other people, the friends with whom the pilot of the narco-submarine contacted, have been tried and are awaiting the sentence.
But the owners of the drug and the members of the drug trafficking organization to which the cocaine was directed are still free. And they are probably already preparing another shipment.
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