Maritime risk Focus: Drug Trafficking on Ships
Ships are attractive to drug traffickers. Security is usually lighter than the airline
industry and they travel the world. Smuggling by sea has been a problem for
years, but in recent years there have been some high-profile cases and evidence
that the methods used are constantly evolving.
A conservative estimate values the illicit drug trade at over US$400 billion per
year. In Colombia it’s cheaper to produce cocaine than coffee per gram. Match
this with a huge global dependency on drugs, then it presents a low-cost, high-
risk and potentially high-reward business model.
The main players
The potential for high profits attracts major international criminal organisations
and terrorists. Those at the top are not the ones transporting the illicit goods.
So, who is?
Couriers and mules
If a vessel is being used to smuggle drugs, it is very plausible that the crew have
no idea whatsoever that drugs are on board. In such cases, it is possible that
port staff may be involved, such as a stevedore who has access to parts of the
vessel and can move around without raising suspicion. Or smugglers can board
the vessel (or attach drugs to the hull) from the seaside or at anchorage. There
are numerous opportunities.
Crew are vulnerable, however. Professional traffickers have been known to
target crew, either by befriending them during shore leave or taking advantage
of any money worries they might have or indeed a drug addiction. Blackmail
might also be a factor.
Crew are attractive to traffickers. They have specific access to suitable hiding
places on board, for example tanks, enclosed spaces and storerooms. Machinery
spaces are ideal for secreting illicit material. Even if the crew member is not the
actual courier, they can facilitate the passage of drugs on and off the ship.
In some cases, a courier might not be aware of the presence of a ‘minder’,
whose purpose is to ensure nothing prevents the courier from doing their job
even if it means interrupting the operation of the ship.
Crewmembers need to look after each other to stop an individual falling into a
position where they become vulnerable and therefore a target. Companies
should have confidential reporting systems that crew can trust.
Ports and passages – new concerns
Over 90% of goods are transported globally by sea and constantly changing
trading patterns between emerging and developing countries create new
opportunities to shift illicit goods.
Recent incidents have highlighted a notable increase in the finding of cocaine on
vessels trading from Colombia to Mexico. One particular route is Barranquilla to
Altamira. Another recent spike in incidents concerns the smuggling of cocaine
from Ecuadorian ports. Drugs have also been found at discharge in ports in
Turkey and Algeria.
Drugs are sometimes transported via indirect routes. As main routes become
better policed, traffickers will select countries with weaker enforcement or
Location of smuggled drugs
There are too many locations on board of vessels where drugs could be
smuggled to list them all. But below we list some of the areas where drugs are
Concealment in bulk cargo: packages are hidden within the stow of a bulk cargo,
which could be a clean grain cargo or a dirty one such as coal or ore. Drugs have
been found close to ladders within the hold.
Containers: Common methods include breaking into the container (and
replacing the security seal afterwards) and secreting the drugs with the cargo
within. Reefer containers are targeted because the technical space that houses
the refrigeration equipment can prove to be a handy hiding place.
Ro-Ro: drugs can be hidden in the cargo of cars, freight vehicles, trailers or
Carry-on: Visitors or crew can quick simply walk on board and leave a package
External: Drugs can be attached to ship’s hull. Typically, the rudder trunk and in
some cases divers stash drugs on to the underwater area of the hull of a
On the move: Speedboats are sometimes used to attach drugs to moving
Preventing drugs getting onto your vessel
Trading in certain parts of the world will put a vessel and its crew at risk of
being victims of drug trafficking. There is no magic solution in preventing a
determined trafficker. However, there are measures that can be taken to keep
The measures employed by a shipowner and the crew depend on the risk. A
voyage from certain South American countries to North America or Europe is
clearly higher risk. However, there are plenty other drug routes around the globe
and this check should be part of a vessel’s voyage risk assessment.
Assessing the risk
Check the level of port security. Secure fences, gates and lighting as well as
CCTV and security patrols are just some of the important measures which need
to be in place. If a port has poor security measures, the risk to the ship will
increase. This requires close co-operation between the ship’s security officer
and the port security officer so that an increase in vessel security can be
A strong security presence on the gangway is paramount. A vessel that looks
like it takes security seriously is a less attractive proposition to a smuggler.
Access points should be restricted and kept to a minimum. A single gangway
under close watch is preferable where possible. Pilot ladders should always be
raised after use.
The ISPS code states that an effective gangway watch is always required with a
list of all crew and expected visitors. It’s also very important to check the ID of
any personnel embarking your vessel.
Restricting access around the vessel and maintaining good lighting on deck are
good effective measures. Locking doors that lead into the accommodation,
storerooms and technical spaces removes an easy opportunity to hide packages.
Locks, code-locks and other devices used to restrict entry should be regularly
checked to ensure they are still working.
Be aware that stores, spares and repaired or serviced equipment are another
easy route for smuggling drugs.
If CCTV is fitted on the vessel then make sure it works and covers the right
Monitor all around the vessel – including the sea side – for any suspicious
behaviour or approaches. If a port has a history of smugglers attaching drugs
below the waterline, periodically turn the engine.
Searching a vessel for small packages of drugs is a huge undertaking for a small
number of crew. But high-risk easily accessible areas can be checked before
Encourage a strong security culture on board your vessel. Crew should be aware
of the risks and know the importance of reporting suspicious activity. The more
alert and secure crew appear to be then the more they may prevent drug
smuggling happening on your vessel.
It is very likely that where a substantial quantity of drugs is found on board a
ship (rather than small quantities found on crew members) the ship will at the
very least be detained so that a forensic investigation can take place. The
master and the crew are also likely to be detained. In many jurisdictions, the
authorities have power to seize the ship and sell it where illegal drugs are found
on board.The level of fines and the extent of the powers of the port and
criminal authorities to detain ships on which illegal substances have been found
varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, leaving shipowners vulnerable to loss of
hire and, in extreme cases, high fines or forfeiture orders that result in the loss
of the ship. We consider below the approach of various jurisdictions and the
steps shipowners and their lenders can take to mitigate the risk of losses.
Fines and detention of ships in the US
Large fines can be imposed in the United States under the Maritime Drug Law
Enforcement Act, of up to US$25m. These fines can be imposed against both US
and non-US flagged vessels. In addition, the courts can also order the civil or
criminal forfeiture of assets that enabled the crime to be committed. The
judicial process for civil forfeiture may be brought before or after criminal
charges are filed and may also be brought in the absence of criminal charges.
The purpose of the civil trial would be to establish the US Government’s title to
property that is traceable to the offence and property that facilitated its
Seized assets can be temporarily released prior to initiation of forfeiture
proceedings. Under forfeiture laws, a court may issue a restraining order
permitting the release of property (including a ship) the subject to forfeiture,
prior to the commencement of a judicial forfeiture proceeding. Upon a showing
of probable cause, a court is authorized to enter a restraining order or injunction
“or take any other action to preserve the availability” of property subject to
forfeiture. Accordingly, a ship may, under certain conditions, be able to return to
commercial service prior to forfeiture proceedings. These conditions typically
include a large bond, consent to the court’s ongoing jurisdiction over the ship,
and agreement by the ship’s owners, charterers, and managers to cooperate
fully with authorities.
If civil forfeiture proceedings are initiated, the shipowner can try to use the
“innocent owner” defence in which case the burden of proof will be on the
shipowner. Under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, an innocent
owner can prevent their interest in property from being forfeited if they can
prove that: (i) they did not know of the illegal conduct giving rise to the
forfeiture or (ii) that upon learning of the criminal conduct (i.e. drug
smuggling), they did everything within their reasonable power to stop the illegal
Criminal forfeiture can only be pursued following a criminal conviction. In these
circumstances only the defendant’s asset can be forfeited since this penalty is
part of the defendant’s sentence. The purpose of criminal forfeiture under US
law is to punish the defendant for his wrongdoing. The state must prove the
connection between the property and the defendant’s criminal conduct. There is
also an ancillary hearing that determines which portion of the property is
forfeitable as to the defendant and what property is not forfeitable if a third
party petitioner has an interest in the property (such as where the bank owns
the ship and leases it).
A recent example of how US authorities deal with ships found with drugs on
board is the MSC Gayane case. The ship was raided on June 17, 2019 by the US
Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Philadelphia. The raid follows the detention
of MSC Desiree in March 2019 after 1,200 pounds of cocaine was found on
board, again in the port of Philadelphia.
In the case of MSC Gayane, the ship was detained for nearly one month and
released from US Custody on bail following the payment of $50m to the US
Government. Its operator and the US Department of Justice have agreed that, in
the event a judge decides to impose forfeiture on the ship, the ship will have 90
days to return to a US port. A major issue for the owners of ships in these
circumstances is that the ship will be seized and held by the government until
the legal processes are complete, which could be a matter of weeks, months or
years, or until an interested party (such as the ship operator or shipowner) posts
Detention of ships in the UK
Ships will undoubtedly be detained following drug seizure in the UK in order to
investigate the crime.
The ship can also be forfeited under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA).
POCA provides for a civil forfeiture regime under which the prosecutor may
seize the proceeds of crime if the shipowner was found to be complicit in the
In a situation where the shipowner is a defendant in the drug-related criminal
conduct and is subsequently convicted, the prosecutor can apply to Court for a
Confiscation Order ordering the owner to pay the amount of his benefit from his
crime. Unlike US civil forfeiture proceedings, the Confiscation Order would not
be directed towards a particular asset although the ship would be one of the
various assets which could potentially be confiscated.
In a 2015 case the tugboat mv Hamal was stopped on the High Seas offshore
Scotland and was found to be carrying 3.2 tonnes of cocaine. The master and
the second in command were convicted of drug smuggling and the ship was
forfeited and sold at auction.
Although there is no maximum fine under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for
shipowners who are found with drugs on board, they would have to be found to
be complicit in the crime for a fine to be levied, and the amount of the fine
would be likely to be far less than in the US.
Detention of ships in other countries
In 2014 the small tanker Noor 1 was found to be smuggling two tonnes of
heroin into Greece. The owner of the ship and the broker received heavy prison
sentences and the NOOR 1 was confiscated by the State. Three attempts were
made to auction it with a starting price of €60,000, but all repeated auctions
were unsuccessful. Noor 1 was then returned to its owners, a decision that
surprised the market. An appeal is now pending before the public prosecutor
against the decision of the court of appeal.
In the B Atlantic case, 132 kg of cocaine was found strapped to the ship’s hull
ten metres below the waterline. It was accepted that unidentified third parties
were responsible for the concealment of the drugs. On discovery, the ship was
subject to a provision in the Venezuelan Anti-Drug law that the property,
including ships employed to commit the investigated offence, will in all cases by
seized as a preventative measure and that when there is an final and definitive
judgment, an order will be made to confiscate the property.
Mitigating the risk of losses from fines or detained or confiscated ships
Before entering into any mortgage, a bank would be well advised to review the
security arrangements of the manager to ensure that proper vetting of the crew
takes place and that there are security measures in place to prevent drug
smuggling. Some trading routes will be higher risk than others. Furthermore,
containerships are particularly vulnerable. It is notable that in the B Atlantic
case, before the drugs were discovered, the master was warned to seal an
underwater grille behind which a grappling hook, a saw, a rope and other tools
had been found by divers. The master declined to do so because he thought it
would delay the ship, with calamitous consequences for both him and the
The main method of mitigating the risk of losses is by obtaining insurance that
would cover the owners and/or their financing bank if the ship were confiscated.