ALDÁN, Spain—In a craggy bay here early one morning last year, police watched three men clamber from the hatch of a curious vessel barely breaking the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
The 66-foot craft slowly sank as the men swam ashore, where officers grabbed two of them. Police struggled for two days to tow their waterlogged quarry to port, where they found roughly 3 metric tons of cocaine onboard, worth some $100 million.
For the first time, they had captured a formidable vessel in drug runners’ flotilla: a trans-Atlantic “narco-submarine.”
South America is awash with cocaine, and traffickers are turning to new ways of getting it to Europe, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says may have surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest market.
Narco-subs have ferried cocaine from Colombia to Central America since the 1990s and recently proliferated. Rarely true submarines, they are generally semisubmersibles that float mostly but not completely below the waterline and are nearly undetectable. Most are built out of sight in South American jungles for around $1 million apiece.
The November discovery off Spain’s northwestern coast was the first confirmation of persistent rumors that they can also reach Europe, where the bulk of cocaine arrives hidden in container ships at major ports.
“It’s a game changer,” said Michael O’Sullivan, head of Europe’s Maritime Analysis and Operations Center, which helps coordinate European antidrug agencies.
DEA Regional Director for Europe Daniel Dodds said the discovery shows Latin American cartels will “go to any lengths to get their product here.”
This account of the narco-sub’s voyage from South America to Europe is compiled from interviews with 10 law-enforcement officials from Spain, the U.S. and other countries with knowledge of the police operation, as well as photographs and videos they provided.
Lawyers for the three men—Agustín Álvarez from Spain and Luis Benítez and Pedro Delgado from Ecuador—didn’t respond to requests for comment. The three are under investigation by a Spanish court for alleged drug trafficking and membership in a criminal organization. The court ordered Mr. Álvarez jailed pending trial because he was considered their leader and a flight risk. The other two have been released.
Their gray fiberglass craft was built at a heavily guarded compound obscured by thick rainforest near the Brazilian city of Macapá on the Amazon estuary. The crew arrived in October. The pilot and mechanic, both from Ecuador and in their 40s, stood to make a few thousand euros for the trip, a large sum back home. Mr. Álvarez, a 29-year-old former amateur boxing champion from the Galician city of Vigo, represented the Spanish gang that would bring the cargo ashore. Mr. Álvarez, who lived in Madrid with no stable job, would have made hundreds of thousands of euros. He had no previous convictions related to illegal drugs but had a boat pilot’s license, suggesting to police he may have previously been involved in trafficking.
“They wouldn’t have entrusted it to a nobody,” said Commissioner Antonio Martínez, head of the Spanish National Police’s drug division.
At the end of October, they set course for Spain, some 4,000 miles away. Off the coast of Brazil, speedboats transferred the cocaine, packed into 152 bales marked with the producers’ logos of a bull, a horse and a devil. The packages had come down the Amazon from Colombia, where production has surged in recent years.
Narco-subs are low-tech, uncomfortable and hazardous, earning them the nickname “water coffins.” The crew shared a cramped cabin, with the bales, wedged between a thundering diesel motor and more than 5,000 gallons of fuel. They had to open the hatch to relieve themselves and, after a ventilation pipe broke, to have fresh air. Sustenance was little more than cookies, chocolate and water. The only view was through narrow windows.
On Nov. 15, European authorities received a tip-off from U.K. law enforcement that an unidentified vessel laden with cocaine was crossing the Atlantic. They hadn’t detected the craft when, three days later, it approached Spain’s southwestern coast, in hopes of transferring its bounty to speedboats. But a storm whipped up waves that made the seas treacherous, especially for unloading heavy bales through a small hatch. The crew waited two days. Then a message came from the coast: It’s impossible.
“It was the worst moment to come to the coast in a semisubmersible,” said Chief Inspector Alberto Morales, head of the National Police’s cocaine section.
So the narco-sub headed north for Galicia, whose 1,000 miles of coastline have long made it a favored route for smugglers. Since the 1980s, cocaine traffickers have loaded speedboats with what they call fariña, the Galician word for flour, from large commercial vessels. They would dart up inlets dotted with mussel platforms and deliver their loads in secluded coves.
The craft evaded the European dragnet as it headed north past Portugal for Costa da Morte, or Death Coast, as Galicia’s northwestern tip is called for the many ships wrecked on its rocky shore. There the crew drew a second blank. A fishing vessel sent to pick up the cargo failed to appear, likely deterred by a heavy police presence.
At that point, it appears the Galician gang cut the crew loose, deciding the risk of being caught outweighed the loss of the cocaine. With food and fuel running low, Mr. Álvarez came up with a plan. He called a friend from Vigo and arranged to meet on a beach along the rugged coast where he used to go diving. The friend jotted down a list of what the crew would need: three sets of clothes, shoes, flashlights and a SIM card for Agus, as Mr. Álvarez was known to friends.
Storms were hampering authorities’ efforts to locate the vessel.
“We knew it was there, but there was no way to find it,” said Capt. Francisco Torres of the Spanish Civil Guard.
But telephone intercepts and other intelligence meant they knew roughly where it was. They deployed some 250 officers in cars, boats and helicopters along the coast where they thought it most likely would approach the shore.
Early in the morning on Nov. 24, police stopped a car flashing its lights out to sea from a peninsula between two estuaries. In the trunk were three sets of dry clothes and some energy bars. Police took the driver’s name and later arrested him and two others who had tried to help the crew.
The narco-sub soon slipped into the bay. Around 100 yards from shore, the crew opened the craft’s valves to scuttle it. Mr. Álvarez’s plan appears to have been to ditch the vessel in waters shallow enough either to retrieve the cargo later or to demonstrate to the Colombian and Galician gangs that he hadn’t pilfered it.
As the three men scrambled out of the hatch, it became clear that the two Ecuadoreans could barely swim.
“They would have died if the Spaniard hadn’t helped them,” said one officer involved in the operation.
Police officers caught one of the Ecuadoreans trying to catch his breath on the beach. They soon nabbed the other not far away. The men were exhausted and had lost more than 20 pounds. Mr. Álvarez fled up tree-covered slopes dotted with vacation homes.
Police locked down the area. Five days later, officers closed in on a wooden house at the end of a dirt track where they had intelligence he was hiding.
Inside, they found Mr. Álvarez, looking gaunt and still wearing the wetsuit and pink foam shoes he had come ashore in. At first, he denied any knowledge of the narco-sub, insisting he was a fisherman and refusing water and cookies from the officers.
Eventually, he surrendered and gulped down a 1 1/2-liter bottle of water.
“It’s finished,” he said, slumping forward. “It’s over.”
—Xavier Fontdegloria and Maria Martinez contributed to this article.
Write to James Marson at [email protected]
Inside First ‘Narco-Sub’ Caught After Atlantic Crossing The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ WSJ.