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Colombian Semi-Sub Smuggling Kingpin Sentenced to 20 Years

U.S. Coast Guard boarding team inspects a semi-sub smuggling craft (USCG)
U.S. Coast Guard boarding team inspects a semi-sub smuggling craft (USCG file image)

Published May 9, 2023 1:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

A notorious operator of drug-running semisubmersible boats has been sentenced to prison in connection with a long-running scheme to smuggle cocaine into the United States via Central America. 

The U.S. Coast Guard routinely intercepts low-profile boats, custom built semisubmersible boats and go-fasts in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. These special-purpose smuggling craft are designed to escape detection or outrun interceptors. Some of these vessels can hold several tonnes of cocaine at a time. 

While the artisanal fishermen who typically pilot these vessels are arrested and returned to the United States for prosecution, the smuggling gangs who hire them are brought to justice infrequently. The case of Colombian national Oscar Adriano Quintero Rengifo (known as "Guatala") is an exception. 

Between January 2015 and September 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted four vessels and 13 tonnes of cocaine which were directly linked to Quintero Rengifo's gang. According to the Department of Justice, Quintero Rengifo's organization sent these semi-subs and other smuggling boats from South America to Guatemala, where the cocaine was smuggled over the Guatemalan/Mexican border and then into the United States. A former mayor in Guatemala, who controlled drug routes in northern Guatemala into Mexico, oversaw the smuggling of the cocaine to Mexican cartel members. Quintero Rengifo was promoted to positions of increasing responsibility within the group, from organizing smuggling operations to ultimately investing in shipments and securing investors.

At the request of the United States, Colombia arrested Quintero Rengifo in January 2021 and extradited him to the U.S. in January 2022. Along the way, he picked up the nickname of "Prince of Semi-Submersibles" in the Colombian media. 

Quintero Rengifo pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling cocaine into the U.S. in May 2022. Last week, U.S. District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell sentenced him to 20 years and 10 months in federal prison.

The case was investigated and pursued by an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, an interagency unit with staff from the FBI, HSI, CGIS and U.S. Southern Command's counternarcotics center. The Colombian government provided substantial support for the successful arrest and prosecution, according to the Justice Department.