Commentary: Drug smuggling increases on the high seas

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Popular culture tells us that smuggling illicit drugs from overseas is a clandestine operation done in stealthy, small-scale movements with a speedboat or a private helicopter. But as it turns out, it is much easier to evade the U.S. Coast Guard and port authorities by packing up the goods in a container and having a major global carrier ship it for you. And with containers generally costing between $2,000 to $3,000 to ship, it is much cheaper too.

An estimated $275 million worth of cocaine was found in this container at the port of Gioia Tauro. (Photo credit: Europol)

Drug kingpins are taking advantage of this simplified shipping plan as evidenced by the increasingly sizable drug busts that highlight a booming international drug trade. And unfortunately, the odds are in the favor of the drug smugglers. At some locations, such as the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, only one in 100 containers is X-rayed. Though this represents one of the least obstructive ports of entry, only one container of 10 is checked in most places.

In July, a ship owned by international banking behemoth JPMorgan Chase and crewed by Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) was seized en route to Rotterdam. Twenty tons of cocaine were discovered on board, which forced the two companies to forfeit $50 million to secure the ship’s release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities in Philadelphia.

And this was not MSC’s first scrape with the law regarding illegal drugs last year. As it turns out, Swiss-based MSC had already suffered two drug busts earlier in 2019. The first occurred in March at the Port of Philadelphia. Authorities discovered 13 large black duffel bags containing 450 bricks (992 pounds) of cocaine valued at $38 million.

CBP publicized the find, noting what a success it was to remove a half ton of dangerous drugs from entering the American market. But just a few months later, CBP discovered a huge load of cocaine weighing in at 40 times the amount of the previous bust. The July seizure of the MSC Gayane was the largest seizure of drugs on a vessel in the 230-year history of CBP and its predecessor agencies. Members of the ship’s crew were arrested and charged with conspiring to transport around $1 billion in drugs.

And the problem is not confined to the United States. In January 2019, Italian authorities in Genoa discovered $555 million of cocaine at its port. It was the largest drug seizure in a quarter of a century and was orchestrated as a sting operation involving Colombia and Spain. The container in question arrived from Colombia and was destined for Barcelona. Ingeniously, Italian authorities replaced the cocaine with salt, let the shipment continue along its journey and tracked the shipment to the house of an elderly Catalonian who was part of a plot to distribute the drugs across Europe.

CBP officers at the Port of Savannah used container-scanning technology to seize this 2,133-pound cocaine shipment on Oct. 29. (Photo Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

The success of this sting operation came on the heels of another bust in the port of Livorno, Italy, of 528 bricks of cocaine hidden in bags of coffee. Though authorities do not believe the operations were connected, they do believe that the busts point to Italian ports as a new crossroads for trafficking narcotics administered by the Calabrian mafia, a proven ringleader in funneling drugs to Europe from Latin America. In the U.S., some pundits believe the increased boldness is spurred by the Trump administration’s efforts to clamp down on the U.S.-Mexico border. Drug cartels would have formerly sent their illicit goods by truck; now they are turning to the shipping industry. The new transport plan shines a light on a disconcerting lack of inspection at ports around the world, which some U.S. lawmakers have been sounding the alarm about since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.