Advice about drug smuggling on ships

Sep 21 2021

There have been a number of cases of drug smugglers concealing drugs on merchant vessels, leading to difficulties to seafarers. Security consultancy Dryad Global shares their advice.

Illicit drug producers continue to develop complex trafficking patterns, targeting commercial vessels and their crew to transit their supply through multiple stopover and transit points.


Despite the existence of IMO frameworks to protect crew when under investigation, unknowing seafarers and masters have been detained for extended periods of time in relation to drug trafficking incidents.


The areas under highest risk are in West Africa (Cape Verde and Nigeria); India, Pakistan and Myanmar; and many countries in central and south America - Mexico, Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia.


But also, the globalised nature of drug-smuggling operations makes vessels possible targets across Africa, Europe, North America and Asia, operating out of areas which may not be directly affiliated with drug production.


Choosing a target

Targeting methodology by drug traffickers has become increasingly complex.


A methodology common in Latin America is to attach drug-filled containers to the bottom of ship hulls with rope, commonly referred to as the ‘torpedo method’.


Methodologies in Europe and MENA countries are largely concealment within legitimate cargo and the container structures themselves.


Common methodologies globally usually involve the use of crew and port staff facilitating trafficking operations, as seen through incidents involving container ships MSC Gayane, MSC Carlotta and (general cargo ship) MV ESER.


Drug traffickers have disguised themselves as port officials and stevedores to bring packages on board, marking cargo containers as checked with replicated official seals. Then they store the packages in engine rooms, or restricted areas of a vessel which are unlikely to be checked.


Other reported but less common methods involve concealing drugs in water inlets, rudder trunks, rudder/propeller stern frames and fuel tanks of commercial vessels.


Before port calls

Before port calls, crew and personnel should be aware that drug cartels may establish communication in an attempt to befriend or achieve a level of cooperation in drug smuggling operations.


The risks involved in establishing/continuing communication with these groups are extensive, but put at risk the safety and wellbeing of all those on board.


All crew should be briefed and reminded of the risks involved with engaging in these group’s operations, highlighting the risks to their personal safety and well-being.


Vessel search plans should be prepared in advance, modified and reviewed as required, in preparation for full vessel searches after leaving port and cargo operations have completed.


Mitigation in port

Single entry points onto the vessel should be strictly enforced, limiting vessel access to essential personnel only.


Pre-arranged logbooks should be kept at the single point of entry/exit, and all external persons must record their appropriate details and paperwork, verified by crew before boarding.


The Master or Chief Officer should be informed if the watch is uncertain as to whether an individual has legitimate reasons to be onboard.


Partial restrictions to movement aboard the vessel by external persons should be enforced, restricting movement in engine rooms, holds, stores and other areas of vulnerability.


A crew member or watchman should be present where visiting personnel/stevedores are aboard the vessel, keeping areas of activity under surveillance and reporting any suspicious behaviour to the Master or Chief Officer.


Watchmen should be aware of all approaching smaller vessels in the vicinity of the docked vessel, particularly after-hours under darkness.


Surrounding waters should be well lit, recognising smugglers may target the hull and rudder of a docked vessel to store and transport drugs.


Floodlights should be considered to supplement to primary illumination systems, particularly if there is concern over a suspicious vessel or individual.


During cargo operations

During cargo operations, partial vessel searches should be performed, with a full vessel search conducted when operations are completed.


To ensure effectiveness, vessel searches should be divided between crew and cross checked, rotated randomly by the ship security officer.


While movement aboard the vessel should be restricted at port, personnel should assume visiting persons have unrestricted access to the vessel when searching.


Some circumstances may prompt a reactive search, particularly unauthorised personnel on board, personnel carrying parcels, entry points temporarily unmonitored, evidence of disturbed stowage, missing keys, or evidence of tampering with tank tops, boat covers and unlocked restricted areas.


Once cargo operations are completed, the crew should perform a full search of the vessel.


In addition to looking for illegal substances, the crew should be on the lookout for stowaways.


If there are any suspicions that drugs may have been placed onboard, the Master should request a comprehensive vessel inspection, including inspection of the vessel’s hull below the waterline, before departure.


When leaving port, inflatables and skiffs may approach a vessel to retrieve drugs attached to the external hull to avoid detection from coast guard and police forces patrolling the immediate coast.


If you find drugs

IMO outlines the following information under Resolution FAL.9(34), the Guidelines for the Prevention and Suppression of the Smuggling of Drugs.


Another person must witness the position of a suspicious package or bag before taking any action. If possible, take photographs of the package or bag as it was found. Handle as little as possible and remember there may be fingerprint evidence on the package or bag.


Where necessary, remove the goods to a safe place under lock and key. Guard if necessary.


If at sea, record any discovery in the ship’s log. Include as much detail as possible.


Do not disclose the find, and limit information to persons who need to know.


Notify the competent authorities at the next port of call before entering territorial waters. Failure to do so could result in charges of drug trafficking. Do not allow crew members to disembark before being interviewed by the competent authorities.


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