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Secret 'submarines'

By Mark Potter, NBC News correspondent

One thing about the criminal mind is that it's always working the angles, always searching for new ways to outsmart the authorities. We'll show you a vivid example of that tonight on NBC Nightly News.

When law enforcement officials cracked down on Colombian drug traffickers using speedboats and freighters to sneak hundreds of tons of cocaine into Mexico and, ultimately, the United States, the smugglers came up with a new and stealthier vessel which they are now mass-producing in the South American jungles.

The smugglers' latest ship is called an SPSS, a "self-propelled semi submersible," which looks like the Nautilus, the fictional Jules Verne submarine from the 1800's.

It's self propelled by an internal engine which can take the ship more than a thousand miles on a tank of gas. The ship is called semi submersible, because while running the high seas loaded with tons of cocaine, almost all of the vessel rides below the ocean surface, making it very hard to detect.

U.S. Coast Guard officials say the traffickers may be building as many as 80 of these ships a year now in remote factories protected by Colombia's insurgent guerillas. While the predominate concern is for their use in smuggling a third of all the cocaine reaching the U.S. now, there are also potential terrorism worries.

A hard-to-detect vessel in the hands of a terrorist group that could fill one of these ships with explosives and slide in next to a cruise ship, a U.S. warship or enter an American port is a national security nightmare. U.S. officials are clear to point that they've never seen it happen, and don't know of any such plots, but also insist they are aware of the possibilities and are keeping a watchful eye.

While reporting this story, we got to see one of these semi-submersibles up close and to go inside. My thought immediately after climbing down the hatch into the cramped control room is that this is not a ship in which I would want to spent any time rolling around the ocean. The SPSS's typically have a crew of four or five people who can easily spend more than a week at sea. I just can't imagine that. Not me.

Perhaps the math explains why they do it. Officials say it costs the traffickers about $1-million dollars to make one of these vessels. While the vessel is normally used for only one smuggling voyage, the cocaine load it carries is worth more than $80-million on average--a staggering profit. An SPSS captain gets paid between $100-thousand and $150-thousand per trip. It's all about the money.

Learn more about the secret "submarines" examined by Mark Potter. Watch video.