Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The undoing of A criminal mastermind

Working-class 'James Bond' derails plot to build cocaine-delivering submarines in mangrove swamp

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Mauner MAHECHA is a family man. A single father, he dotes on his three young girls and provides for his ailing mother, too. But in testimony delivered over a two-week federal trial in Miami, the court heard little about his home life. That's because, when the 34-year-old wasn't tending to his children, he was running drugs and masterminding the construction of a fleet of submarines to silently ferry tons of cocaine beneath the seas. And he would have pulled it off if it hadn't been for an unassuming engine mechanic who risked his life to ensure the narco-subs never left shore.

Last week, a Miami jury delivered a guilty verdict for one of Mahecha's associates. But far more interesting than the prosecution of one of his underlings was the detail the trial revealed about Mahecha's criminal mind -- and his underwater engineering marvels.

Mahecha spared no expense. He had a fat R&D budget and spent millions of dollars building each submarine. These aren't the crude vessels that drug runners have used for years to cruise just below the ocean's surface. Mahecha's Kevlar-coated submarines can submerge to 20 metres, go 10 days without refuelling, and glide underwater for up to 18 hours at a clip. Unbelievably, they were made by hand in the mangrove swamps of Colombia and Ecuador, in desolate outposts with no access to electricity.

When analysts with the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence got their first close look at one of Mahecha's captured submarines, a 22.5-metre-long beast with twin propellers, they devoted 70 fawning pages to describing its capabilities. "The streamlined hull, diesel-electric propulsion system and fuel ballast system design all show a significant level of technical expertise and knowledge of submersible operations," they crowed in a confidential naval intelligence white paper marked "For Official Use Only."

For help with construction and operations, Mahecha recruited talent from the Colombian navy, using promises of fast cash to lure five current and former seamen to work on the project in his remote jungle hideouts. He filled out his building crew by corrupting local welders, electricians and fibreglass installers. Finally, he brought in local muscle to secure the sites, arming his men with automatic rifles and grenades.

Together, the ragtag team constructed at least three submarines that ran so quietly, the U.S. navy worried they were "potentially difficult to detect acoustically or by radar." Mahecha was building an underwater cocaine pipeline, an undetectable narco-submarine delivery system worthy of a James Bond plot. Indeed, U.S. and Colombian authorities may have never learned of his sophisticated operation if it weren't for Genert Quintero.

It was 2009, and Quintero was training at the Colombian navy's marine infantry base in Cove±as. A skilled outboard-engine mechanic, Quintero was walking to lunch on base when an SUV pulled up beside him. Two senior officers he knew jumped out to make small talk. A few weeks later, the same two officers were back. This time, sitting inside the SUV, retired lieutenant-colonel Oscar Augusto Gutierrez Garcia made his pitch. "He told me they had a very important job," Quintero recalled from a witness stand in Miami's federal courthouse. "He told me it involved work on a submarine in Ecuador. He told me it was the opportunity of a lifetime for me."

In some ways, it was. After 23 years with the navy and nearing retirement, Quintero was earning a modest working man's salary. Just one round-trip submarine mission for Mahecha's operation would pay him at least $50,000, Quintero recalled.

After Mahecha's officers made their pitch, Quintero dutifully reported the meetings to a superior he trusted in the Armada Nacional, the Colombian navy. He, in turn, confided in a friend, an American stationed in Colombia for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Together with a Colombian naval intelligence unit and elite investigators with the Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciòn, the Colombian and American law-enforcement agents stitched together a plan for their newly minted undercover operative.

Quintero accepted the job offer, as coached. He retired from the navy and began training as a crew member on one of Mahecha's coke-toting submarines. He was now on the inside of an ingenious criminal enterprise.

Like any good HR department, the drug traffickers provided an introductory packet to new employees. "The area where the project is being developed is tropical and there are lots of bugs," it advised. It asked Quintero to get "vaccinated against yellow fever," warned him about the possibility of experiencing claustrophobia during long weeks spent in the cramped submarine and, ominously, requested his blood type. From the beginning, Quintero testified, he knew the danger his work posed. "I was fully aware I could never make mistakes," he said. "They would have made me and my family disappear."

The DEA agents who operated in Bogot° and Cartagena were not about to allow that to happen. Working with their Colombian counterparts, they opened a massive investigation in spring 2010.

When police raided Mahecha's multiple cocaine-processing labs, they discovered more than four tonnes of cocaine -- easily worth tens of millions of dollars. They seized all three of his submarines in dramatic jungle raids, including an armed assault on one sub just hours before its maiden voyage. And they piled on the arrests, even netting the drug kingpin himself. He had gone on the run and finally surrendered to authorities in Panama in 2011.

He is now serving an 18-year sentence in a Florida prison.

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 D9

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