Authorities in Colombia have netted the country’s “king” of drug submarines – a man whose services, prosecutors allege, have been employed by a range of powerful criminal groups from Colombia to Mexico.
Óscar Moreno Ricardo (above photo) – arrested in Medellín in early January – is wanted for extradition by US authorities on charges related to drug trafficking, according to Colombian prosecutors, who allege he was the principal actor responsible for coordinating the manufacture and launching of cocaine-laden semi-submersibles off Colombia’s Pacific coast.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, Moreno Ricardo’s involvement in the drug trade dates back to 2005, when he served as a pilot on go-fast boats. Prosecutors said he soon coordinated shipments for Mexican cartels and Colombian armed groups. About five years ago, Moreno Ricardo allegedly started manufacturing semi-submersibles that carried as much as five tons of cocaine and were dispatched to Central America, earning him the nickname the “king of narco-submarines,” according to prosecutors. In the underworld, he was allegedly known as “Cachano” and “El Viejo.”
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Prosecutors said Moreno Ricardo had links to several criminal groups, including Colombia’s Urabeños drug clan; Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) rebel force; and Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
Moreno Ricardo’s daughter told Colombia’s Bluradio that her father was wrongfully arrested, claiming that he shares a nickname of the accused, “Cachano,” and that he is really a cattle rancher from Acandí, a town in the northern department of Chocó. The wanted man, she said, lives and operates further south in Tumaco, in the department of Nariño.
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Authorities may have sunk the alleged drug-sub king, but the use of semi-submersibles to move cocaine – which dates back more than three decades – is only increasing, as the knowledge needed to build the vessels spreads.
Although developing narco-submarines requires large investments, their advantages in maritime drug smuggling are without parallel, given how difficult it is to detect and intercept them. In Colombia, where the design and manufacture of the drug submarine has been perfected, authorities seized 31 vessels in 2021, a jump from 23 in 2019.
Traffickers in other parts of the region have also employed drug submarines, with vessels discovered in waters off Suriname, Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. In 2019, the first drug submarine to be intercepted in Europe was found off the coast of Galicia, Spain. The vessel carried 3 tons of cocaine from Colombia. In 2021, authorities raided a warehouse in Spain’s coastal province of Málaga, where a drug submarine was still in the process of being built.
The recent proliferation of the drug submarine is due in part to criminals who outsource their services to a broad range of trafficking groups. This outsourcing model spares these groups from needing the design, manufacturing and logistical capabilities to deploy such vessels.
Colombian criminals are leading the way in the “drug submarine-for-hire business.” In December 2020, US and Colombian authorities dismantled an organization that similarly specialized in the manufacture and adaptation of semi-submersibles for the trafficking of cocaine. Its customers included the ELN and Mexican cartels.
In 2018, Suriname authorities arrested several Colombian men employed to build a submarine that could export cocaine from Suriname to Europe. Among those charged was the cousin of Rodrigo Pineda, a heavy machinery salesman accused of being one of the largest manufacturers of semi-submersibles for drug traffickers in the Colombian coastal department of Nariño.