Wednesday, February 28

In Too Deep: The Epic and Doomed Voyage of Europe’s First Narco Submarine | drugs

T28 months after it began in a clandestine shipyard deep in the Brazilian Amazon, one of the most unlikely criminal voyages of all time came to an end Tuesday with the seven sentences issued by a court in northwestern Spain.

Agustín Álvarez, a 31-year-old former Spanish amateur boxing champion, was jailed for 11 years for piloting a semi-submersible “narco-submarine” carrying 3,068kg of cocaine worth an estimated €123m (£104m) through of the Atlantic. His two crewmates, Ecuadorian cousins ​​Luis Tomás Benítez Manzaba and Pedro Roberto Delgado Manzaba, received the same sentence, while four Spaniards who conspired with Álvarez to help guide the submarine to land were jailed between seven and nine years.

A crane ship tries to refloat the narco-submarine off Cangas de Morrazo in Galicia, Spain, in November 2019.
A crane ship tries to refloat the narco-submarine off Cangas de Morrazo in Galicia, Spain, in November 2019. Photo: Salvador Sas / EPA

Not surprisingly, the case, a wildly unlikely but real saga involving the Colombian Gulf Clan cartel, a 70-foot-long fiberglass boat christened Che, a tell-tale pair of pants, and several miraculous escapes during The 27-day, 3,500-mile odyssey from Brazil to Spain has made headlines around the world since the ship was sunk in a Galician cove on November 24, 2019.

Just over two years later, the story of the first fully loaded drug “submarine” detected in European waters has given rise to a new “subgenre” of Galician narco-chronicles.

Last month, Javier Romero, a journalist for Voz de Galicia specializing in drug crimes, published Operation Black Tide, a meticulously researched 313-page account of the epic but doomed undertaking. In late February, a drama inspired by the case, also titled Operation Black Tide, will start on Amazon Prime Video. The fiction series will be followed in March by a four-part documentary on the same platform, called, inevitably, Operation Black Tide: The Suicide Voyage.

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Romero remembers rushing to see the ship that Sunday morning after being told of its discovery by a law enforcement source. He arrived at the beach of the Ría de Aldán, where, coincidentally, both he and Álvarez had spent their childhood summers, to see the sunken silhouette of Che, its gray bow poking half a meter above the water.


“One day a narco-submarine appeared on our shores, the first in Europe,” says the reporter. “How is that not going to get your attention? It was just another level of drug dealing.”

At the time, however, neither Romero nor the police knew much about the ship and its crew. The vessel’s arrival in Galicia had been a hastily improvised “plan C” when fuel ran out and after two previous attempts to rendezvous with cartel ships off the coast of the Iberian peninsula had failed.

Desperate and exhausted after a journey that had taken nearly twice as long as planned, Álvarez turned to three childhood friends from his hometown of Vigo, hoping they would help him, his crew, and his crew to safety. cocaine. But neither the ransom nor the subsequent rewards from him ever materialized.

Author Javier Romero inside the narcosubmarine
Author Javier Romero within the narco-sub. Photography: Penguin Random House

An international police operation in which the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom and agents from Spanish, Portuguese and American agencies participated made the authorities wait for Che’s arrival in Galicia. The South American cousins, who barely knew how to swim, were arrested shortly after the ship was sunk, while Álvarez was arrested after hiding in a nearby abandoned house for five days.

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Romero, who spent two years investigating the case and speaking with police and some who knew the condemned, eventually pieced together the fateful journey. He learned that Álvarez had been the cartel’s second choice for captain. The first, another Galician, had traveled to Brazil to examine the million-euro ship, but he rejected the job after deciding that it was a suicide mission.

Álvarez and the Ecuadorians had fewer objections. After leaving their Amazon base, the three spent nearly a month crammed into a dark, stinking cabin behind three tons of cocaine and 20,000 liters of fuel. The meal consisted of energy bars, rice, crackers, and sardines; the toilet a plastic bag.

The journey of the narco-sub as shown in the Amazon Prime series
The journey of the narco-submarine as shown in the Amazon Prime series. Photography: Amazon

“From then on,” Romero writes, “it was nothing more than a constant noise, suspicions, more darkness, stenches, possible betrayals, pain, leaks, humidity, grease, fear, cold sweats and communications that either did not arrive or perhaps were intercepted.”

Even today, Romero cannot fathom how the trio endured those 27 days of Stygia and survived three storms, a near-miss with a huge ship, and the attentions of police boats and helicopters.

The book does not skimp on details about Álvarez’s boxing career, about the specifications of the semi-submersible, and about how investigators concluded that the secret shipyard was somewhere near the Brazilian city of Macapá after finding a pair of pants and a receipt. with the name of a place. shop among the belongings of Luis Tomás Benítez Manzaba.

But it focuses on Álvarez and his three friends, one of whom turned to his father for help, and how friendships formed in a schoolyard eventually led to a prison yard.

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As Romero says, history is not just about assassins (hitmen), superstition and submarines: “It’s about how these kids – apart from Agustín [Álvarez]who accepted a lot of money on his part, have screwed up their lives”.

A still from the Amazon Prime series
A still from the Amazon Prime series. Photography: Amazon

Today, the seven are behind bars and Che himself is on display at the National Police Academy museum in Ávila, which, by accident or design, is about as far inland as you can go in Spain.

Romero has seen the submarine for himself and is very familiar with its dark underbelly.

“It’s horrible,” he says. “It’s claustrophobic; it is indescribable. It just shows how little drug trafficking organizations care about their own people. It’s mean. It’s just a death trap.”


The reporter tried to interview Álvarez but his request was denied. Since his arrest, and for obvious reasons, the former boxer’s lips have remained as sealed as the 153 bales of cocaine he brought across the Atlantic.

But if they ever meet, Romero knows what their questions would be.

“I would ask him to tell me more about those 27 days and how they went. How did she feel in the jungle when she saw the submarine and inspected it? Did he feel safe? Or did he feel that climbing inside would be crazy?

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