Image: Submarine
Kent Gilbert  /  AP
The homemade submarine is under guard in the Pacific port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica, on Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/20/2006 6:59:35 PM ET 2006-11-20T23:59:35

Tipped off by three plastic pipes mysteriously skimming the ocean’s surface, authorities seized a homemade submarine packed with 3 tons of cocaine off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

Four men traveled inside the 50-foot wood and fiberglass craft, breathing through the pipes. The craft sailed along at about 7 mph, just six feet beneath the surface, Security Minister Fernando Berrocal said Sunday.

The submarine was spotted Friday 103 miles off the coast near Cabo Blanco National Park on the Nicoya peninsula.

“This is the first time in the country’s history that a craft with these characteristics has been caught near the national coasts,” Berrocal said in a statement.

U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, FBI and Colombian officials aided Costa Rican authorities in the operation, Berrocal said.

Two Colombians, a Guatemalan and a Sri Lankan were arrested and taken to the United States, since they were captured in international waters, Berrocal said.

Officials took the submarine to a Costa Rican Coast Guard station and were trying to determine its origins, the Security Ministry said. It was found with several tanks of gas, but Costa Rican authorities said the vessel, which had a bailer to keep out water, probably did not travel far.

So far this year, Costa Rican authorities have seized 18 tons of cocaine.

In March, the Colombian navy seized a 60-foot fiberglass submarine that likely was used to haul tons of cocaine out to speedboats in the Pacific Ocean for transportation to Central America and on to the United States. Three people were arrested and two speedboats seized during the operation, but no drugs were found.

Colombian authorities say smuggling cocaine by sea has become the top method of transport in recent years, as radar systems have made it difficult to smuggle drugs in small airplanes.

The U.S. Coast Guard frequently patrols for drug shipments off Costa Rica but the latest seizure was believed to be the first time a submarine has been caught there.

They've tried it before
Drug cartels have tried to use submarines at least three times in the past:

  • Last March, Colombia seized a homemade sub near San Buenaventura, Colombia. No drugs were found but officials estimated it was capable of transporting four tons of drugs.
  • In 2000, Colombian officials found a partially built submarine near Bogota that would have been 100 feet long and able to carry 10 tons of drugs.
  • In the 1990s, reports surfaced that traffickers were trying to buy a surplus Soviet submarine.

The DEA says its cocaine seizures steadily increased from 1997 to 2003, and then jumped in 2004 and 2005 to more than 110 tons each year.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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