Pieces of evidence of smuggling

Rise in drug smuggler threats to crew

Published: 22 March 2023

Cocaine production in Colombia has exploded and drug cartels continue to target and abuse innocent seafarers and their ships for nefarious activities. The drug cartels have become more prone to resort to violence to expand and protect their criminal enterprises.

Colombia cocaine production reaches all-time high

Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer. When the former guerrilla President Petro stopped coca eradication and law enforcement operations in ELN and FARC-controlled coca growing regions, cultivation in Colombia skyrocketed by a massive 43% in late 2021/2022. This trend is expected to continue during the next few years.

The conservative estimate is that there will be at least a 35% increase in the volume of cocaine available for shipment in 2023. An indicator of this production boom is reflected in the price per kilo of cocaine in coca growing areas, which is now one third of the price in comparison to 2021.

This trend is exacerbated by the the cocaine production processes becoming more efficient and resulting in cocaine of higher quality.

The majority of the cultivation, refining, storage, security, and internal transport is still controlled by the ex-FARC guerrillas and the ELN, as well key criminal organizations, such as the Gulf Cartel.

In a corrupted world, ships are perfect “mules”

Ships are plying the oceans between continents carry huge quantities of cargo in relatively predictable patterns. Also a ship has numerous compartments and sections some of which are inaccessible. In other words for a smuggler, a ship is, a perfect platform for transportation of contraband drugs. However, it would not be possible to smuggle such large quantities of drugs onboard ships if the level of corruption had not been so high among law enforcement officials, dock workers, private security guards, and on rare occasions even members of a ship’s crew.

Corruption thrives because of the large sums of money involved in drug smuggling. It arises out of sheer greed or when the criminal networks resort to violence or threats to coerce otherwise innocent people to become actively involved in smuggling even if it is just to turn a blind eye. Lately, the Mexican drug cartels appear to be playing an increasing role in organising drug smuggling out of several countries in South- and Central America. This has exacerbated the level of coercion as the Mexican cartels are renowned for their brutality. Sadly, kidnappings, cutting off limbs, beheadings and similar atrocities have become more widespread. They typically occur in two instances: 1) when a person is in a position to disrupt a smuggling operation (for example a key law enforcement officer or port official) and is unsusceptible to corruption; or 2) failure to deliver as promised, for example theft or confiscation of drugs or money in their possession.

The sheer level of brutality displayed by the criminal networks serves as a further incentive to allow the smuggling operation to continue without interference.

Transhipment increasingly used

In the past smugglers often selected ships bound for the desired port of discharge. However, in recent months, it has become clear that transhipment ports are used more and more. This is perhaps an effort to avoid interception by law enforcement. The increased use of transhipment poses a threat to ships traditionally not regarded as high risk, and some locations have proven more popular transhipment points than others. Ecuador has become the primary location in South America for cocaine shipped directly to Europe even though no drugs are grown in Ecuador. The vast majority of cocaine shipped from Ecuador is cultivated and refined in southern Colombia and transported across land/water borders into Ecuador. In 2022, 60% of the cocaine seized in Antwerp was shipped from Ecuador.

Brazil has also emerged as a major load point with ports such as Santos, Natal, Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, Vitoria, Sao Sebastião, Itajai, Rio Grande, and Paranagua being hotspots. Drugs destined for Europe are loaded here and routed via transhipment ports in for example Senegal, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Morocco, Cape Verde, Turkey, and Panama.

With the change in smuggling patterns and the increased use of non-Colombian load ports and transhipment points, shipowners need to be even more vigilant to manage the threat posed by drug smugglers and their ever changing modi operandi.

Legal risks

Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, and Turkey are among the countries, where repercussions to crew and shipowner can be serious if drugs are found onboard, regardless of whether the crew or shipowner are directly involved. There are many examples of members of crew being held in custody for several months without any charges being made. The detention and seizure of the ship for prolonged periods is also common. Before calling at ports in such countries, extra preventive measures should be taken, and a thorough drug search should be carried out before departure. Information about the preventive measures undertaken should be recorded in the ship’s log book.

Narco pirates threaten crews

Over time, smugglers have become more brazen in their modus operandum and more prone to resort to violence. A recent case involved smugglers operating from small skiffs boarding the ship while underway. When the ship’s crew raised the alarm, the smugglers opened fire with automatic weapons against the ship’s crew. Once ship’s crew have been suppressed the smugglers have carried on with their business of concealing the drugs on board, typically in containers. In addition to the contraband drugs, the smugglers carry a full set of tools to break in, together with fake container seals to allow for the containers to be re-sealed. Such cases have also occurred while ships were alongside during cargo operations.

The increased levels of violence constitute a serious threat to seafarers, and caution is urged when detecting suspected smuggling activities. It is advised to keep a distance, raise the alarm on board, and alert shore authorities.

Contracted security teams

The use of local security guards to protect the ship against the drug smuggling threat is a solution which can be considered but is not always effective especially in ports where the threat is high. In places where drug production and smuggling are widespread, the illegal economy associated with these activities is significant. The presence in society of vast sums of money generated from illegal activities makes the countering of such illegal activities very risky . It is therefore not uncommon that security guards from high-threat areas tend to turn a blind eye or even be actively involved in helping smugglers place drugs on board. When contemplating the employment of private security guards, it is therefore a valid consideration whether to use local teams, or teams based outside the immediate influence of the criminal groups.

Thanks to Phoenix Group, Panama, and P&I Services Mexico for providing data to support this news piece.

Jakob Paaske Larsen


Jakob Paaske Larsen

Head of Maritime Safety & Security

Copenhagen, Denmark