From August 2 to August 11, ports in Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, and Greece have seized an unprecedented amount of illicit drugs. Each container ship originated from Colombia, Peru, or Brazil and most of the cargo was destined for the port of Antwerp, Belgium. The port of Antwerp remains a top destination for drug exports, especially for those coming out of Latin America and the Caribbean, due to the sheer volume of containers that call at the port and a relatively high street value for narcotics. Additionally, once narcotics enter the port of Antwerp, it is easier to then distribute them across the continent due to a lack of appropriate verification tools and security measures.
The increasing amount of seizures and volumes of illicit drugs is causing concern for shipping companies who worry about penalties, fines, reputational damage, and prolonged security checks at ports that can lead to delays in cargo handling. While the impact on supply chains remains minimal, this development should be monitored as it has the potential to significantly disrupt the fast handling of containers at ports.
Largest seizures ever recorded
On August 2, the port of Hamburg seized 4.5 tons of cocaine on a container ship – the largest amount ever intercepted in Germany. On that same day, British authorities seized 398 kilograms of heroin from a shipping container, also the largest seizure of this drug ever in the United Kingdom. The following day, August 3, the port authorities at Thessaloniki discovered 51 kilograms of cocaine being transported in a container ship. This incident also marked Greece’s largest cocaine interception ever.
On August 8, German authorities seized an additional 1.5 tons of cocaine at the port of Hamburg. The following day, Spanish authorities confiscated 8 kilos of cocaine at the port of Malaga. Also on August 9, Dutch authorities seized 500 kilos of cocaine at the port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Subsequently, on August 11, Rotterdam port authorities seized another 750 kilos of cocaine from a container ship.
Many drug smugglers from South America that have typically targeted the United States are now targeting Europe as illicit drugs have a higher street value there. One kilo of cocaine is worth approximately USD 2,200 in Colombia, while the same kilo can sell for USD 12,000 – USD 16,000 in Mexico. By the time the kilo reaches Europe, it can be valued at USD 53,000 – USD 55,000.
Impact on shipping companies and customers
According to the 2019 European Drug Report, current data shows that the number of seizures and the volumes seized are at an all-time high. Cocaine enters Europe through numerous routes and means, but the growth in large-volume trafficking, through major ports using containers, stands out. The influx of illicit drugs being smuggled via container ships is concerning many shipping companies who, on any given day, have millions of containers moving between the world’s trading nations.
Governments around the world are imposing harsher measures on shipping companies that are found to contain narcotics on their vessels. On June 17, the largest amount of cocaine intercepted by the United States Customs Border Patrol was discovered on container ship MSC Gayne. The ship was confiscated by authorities and MSC, the world’s second-biggest container ship operator by capacity, was forced to pay USD 50 million (EUR 45 million) in cash and bond to release the vessel after it was held for nearly a month. In a particularly unusual move, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania plans to seek permanent forfeiture of the ship. The seizure affected the company’s reputation and U.S. authorities have temporarily removed the carrier from a list of trusted operators that can move goods through security checks more quickly.
Bribery of crew poses significant risk to maritime shipping
There are various methods used by traffickers to load drugs onto container ships. Smugglers who typically have used small planes, speed boats, trucks, and other transportation modes are now stuffing large amounts of narcotics into commercial distribution shipping networks, trusting that illicit cargo will go unnoticed in the enormous stream of goods moving between countries. More recently, larger volumes of narcotics are being trafficked with the help of ship and port crews.
In the MSC case, two crew members were paid USD 50,000 each to facilitate trafficking. The ship was approached twice by more than 10 boats while it was sailing at night in the Pacific Ocean between Chile, Peru, and Panama. The ship’s crane was used to bring the drugs onboard, and two crew members stuffed the bales into containers holding other cargo, an affidavit said. According to reports, one crew member operated the crane to bring on numerous bales of cocaine that were wrapped in netting. Along with bales of cocaine were replacement seals, which would be used on the containers in which the cocaine was concealed.
In August 2019, local authorities thwarted an attempt by port employees to open a cocaine entry route through the port of Malaga, Spain. Police and customs officials seized 8 kilos of cocaine and arrested eight people, 5 of whom were port employees. Upon investigation, it was found that smugglers were trying to establish a new entry route to facilitate drug smuggling into Spain. It was revealed that smugglers have maintained contacts with port of Malaga workers since 2018, who allegedly would have been willing to collaborate on their goal.
In response to police pressure at ports, drug trafficking routes and operations have become more complex. The increase in seizures and volume of trafficked narcotics, paired with ship and port crew involvement, is concerning for shipping companies and port authorities. The MSC case highlights the severe consequences that can be imposed on shipping companies that are found to have illicit drugs in their containers. Delays in cargo handling are the primary concern for shippers but the impact to supply chains remains minimal. Fast handling of containers is important for the world’s economy, but this is at odds with extensive security checks. The main challenge for Europe and other trading nations is striking the right balance between diligent cargo checks and facilitating trade.