Maritime drug trafficking: an underrated problem


Historical synopsis
Current developments, issues and trends
Essential elements sustaining the drug trade
Ports and the areas surrounding them
The physical attributes of coastal areas
Concealment of drug shipments on ships and among cargo stowed on ships
Social and political considerations
Possible solutions and strategies for a more effective campaignagainst maritime drug trafficking


Author: B. R. AUNE
Pages: 63 to 72
Creation Date: 1990/01/01

Maritime drug trafficking: an underrated problem

B. R. AUNE London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


Seizure data indicate that a substantial proportion of the total quantity of drugs seized is confiscated from maritime modes of conveyance or has been transported by sea. The trafficking of narcotic drugs by sea has virtually become an industry comprised of many individual enterprises of varying size and organization. The maritime medium is one of the main ways by which drugs may enter some countries. In response to the problem, various sophisticated anti-trafficking offensives and strategies have been established or contemplated in certain geographical areas. The shipment of drugs to the primary consuming countries has not been curbed, however, and there is every indication that the overall movement of drugs is still unimpeded.


In this article, the question of why there has been so little success in combating maritime drug trafficking is dealt with by focusing on various physical, technical and socio-political elements that are conducive to it. Suggestions are made for improvements in policy and operations, accompanied by legal reform, to counter the trafficking. Among other things, the author proposes the establishment of an effective world-wide intelligence system and communications network, the use of naval forces and other military personnel to assist drug law enforcement agencies in apprehending drug traffickers, the establishment of specialized international programmes for monitoring certain regions of the ocean, and inviting law enforcement personnel from other countries to assist local forces, under rigid guidelines.

Historical synopsis

The transport of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances by sea dates back at least two millenniums. It is probably the oldest mode of drug conveyance, aside from the use of animals and humans.

Among the substances first carried by sea were cannabis, opium and natural psychoactive plants such as belladonna and henbane. An important dimension that distinguished the transport of such substances then from the movement of drugs today, however, was the status of licitness. Today, the transport of controlled substances is prohibited. And the lawful shipment of such substances is tightly regulated and, in quantitative terms, relatively small. Hence, the bulk of all drug shipments today fall under the category of drug smuggling or illicit drug trafficking.

Drug smuggling by sea first occurred during the Social Wars (91-88 B.C.). To protect its currency, Rome banned the import of the highly prized drug unguenta exotica and other ointments and perfumes [1] . In the modern sense of the term, though, drug trafficking by sea first occurred in 1796, following the banning of the importation of opium into China [2] . The British East India Company, which had held a monopoly on the transportation of opium out of India, disregarded the ban and instituted ways of circumventing it.

Current developments, issues and trends

Drug trafficking by sea has grown throughout the twentieth century. Only with the advent of the jet era was the prominence of maritime drug trade curtailed. The development of increasingly strict controls on air travel, through security check-points, customs formalities, passenger checks and baggage limitations, in contrast to the rather lax controls in ports, has sustained the significance of the maritime mode of trafficking. In fact, seizure records for the 1980s indicate that the maritime mode of smuggling is regaining prominence.* Corroborating this evidence is the fact that drugs with high unitive values, such as cocaine, which, in the past, have usually been sent by air, are increasingly being shipped by sea and in large quantities, a practice that was uncommon before the 1980s.

Complicating the entire matter is the high degree of sophistication in the maritime drug trade at all levels. The transport of drugs by sea falls into the following categories: (a) drugs shipped on commercial carriers engaged in legitimate (licit) trade, concealed either on the ships themselves or among the cargo; or (b) those transported clandestinely as the sole cargo, either directly on a private vessel or via operations involving two or more vessels. Such developments create serious law enforcement problems and raise pertinent questions concerning the efficacy, suitability and viability of current drug interdiction efforts at the national and international levels.** One of these questions is why there appears to be so little success in combating drug smuggling by sea compared with the considerable progress made in curbing drug trafficking by air and (across borders) by land. Personnel directly engaged

*According to seizure data, a substantial proportion (about 70 per cent) of the total quantity of drugs seized is confiscated either from maritime modes of conveyance or after having been transported by sea.

**According to a survey of the various agencies concerned with illicit drug trafficking among the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 8-12 per cent of the total volume of drugs trafficked is seized [3] . in shipboard rummages, Customs searches, coastline surveillance operations and mariners themselves know about the difficulties and complexities involved in combating maritime drug smuggling. Many legislators, policy makers, administrative authorities and non-marine law enforcement personnel, how- ever, simply are not fully aware of the different possibilities for drug smuggling that the sea affords. They fail to realize the importance of basic factors relating to physical surroundings, technological developments and socio-political circumstances.

Essential elements sustaining the drug trade

Geography is the main component of the maritime drug trade: the physical position or form and accessibility by sea of countries or regions influence how and to what degree certain modes of transport are used for drug trafficking into or through them. The peninsular configuration of Italy or of Norway and Sweden, the insular character of New Zealand or of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the archipelagic nature of the Bahamas, Indonesia or the Philippines, and the basin/island structure of countries in the Caribbean are examples of unique geographical phenomena that sustain a given drug route and determine in many ways, the role a country or group of countries plays in regional and international drug trade.

In this section, the structure of ports and the various attributes of coastal areas are examined, together with the nature of transport vessels. A clear understanding of the factors involved would greatly facilitate the development of sound policy for combating maritime drug trade.

Ports and the areas surrounding them

Ports, being centres of commerce, function as international borders for the transit of vessels, cargo and passengers. To ensure their efficient operation, there is a concomitant degree of maritime activity, service industry and infrastructure present. Usually there is also a fair amount of Government- mandated security present to fulfil the State's responsibility regarding border control, Customs matters and safe port operation.

In a number of countries, however, port security to provide effective protection of warehouses and terminals, as well as Customs agents and other law enforcement personnel (marine police, narcotics agents etc.), are inadequate or non-existent. In contrast with this situation, most international airports have relatively extensive and elaborate security systems and highly regulated, if not rigid, infrastructure.

Additional factors weakening the capacity for effective port control are the myriad of local vessels in the port and the often diverse geography of the surrounding area. Barges, tankers, launches, lighters, patrol craft and tugboats are only a few of the vessels with bona fide reasons for being in the port and going alongside ships that are anchored, docked or moving through the port. It does not require much imagination to devise smuggling schemes involving service vessels. Yacht basins, fish factories, abandoned piers and warehouses provide traffickers with plenty of opportunities for unloading drugs from vessels. Yachts and fishing vessels can quickly approach a ship and procure a drug shipment from it. Alternatively, a drug consignment may be thrown overboard in a buoyant container and retrieved by a boat waiting nearby.

The physical area surrounding ports is often extremely diverse: the offshore area ranges from bathing areas to cement and steel docks and garbage-strewn marshes and decaying piers and pilings; on shore, it ranges from farmland to high-rises, sophisticated cargo-handling terminals, refineries, shipyards and abandoned warehouses. These surroundings provide smugglers with many possibilities for unloading drugs from vessels.

Though many ports utilize radar and/or camera monitoring devices and systems, they have only been marginally successful in detecting and appre-hending smugglers, as evidenced by the lack of substantial progress in demand reduction.

These devices all have their shortcomings. Radar leaves blind spots behind massive objects (large ships, buildings, hills etc.). The images on the radar screen require identification. It is difficult to determine the legitimacy of energy vessel observed by radar. During inclement weather (e.g. hail, rain, snow- storms), the capacity of radar to detect and differentiate between objects is temporarily lost.

One shortcoming of monitoring cameras is their limited field of vision. Also, there may not be anything out of the ordinary visible on the monitoring screen even when something unlawful is occurring.

Patrol craft are valuable in backing up detection systems by making seizures only if they can respond quickly, which means they must always be present and on the alert.

In most countries, government expenditure is a sensitive political issue, which makes it extremely difficult to maintain a programme that calls for the constant presence of patrol craft throughout the port.

Another related topic concerns the illicit activity of personnel serving in an official capacity on the docks or having some other legitimate reason for being there. Ports and their surrounding areas have been the setting for some of the most blatant forms of illegal activity, ranging from single-handed pilferage to highly sophisticated, organized criminal enterprises. Among the diverse personnel exposed to such opportunities are cargo handlers, immigration and Customs officers, longshoremen, seamen, port police, security guards, shipping agents and truck drivers. The ready and legitimate access these individuals have to ships enables them to take drugs ashore with less risk of being noticed.

Though many countries in Africa, Central and South America and South- East Asia are commonly associated with such incidents, members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have also had their share. Many of the major ports in the United States of America, for example, have been plagued by criminal activities of this kind.

Another related topic concerns the well-documented problem of drug trafficking through free trade zones. While the perimeters of free trade zones tend to be heavily controlled, their internal areas are often left relatively unregulated.

Free trade zones are often used as trans-shipment sites for smuggling drugs into, through or out of a country. There are also opportunities for criminal activity involving port personnel in free trade zones.

The physical attributes of coastal areas

The geography of a coastal zone can either preclude or benefit drug trafficking. The desolation and certain other physical attributes of select coastal areas make them attractive sites for staging smuggling operations. These usually involve (a) two or more other vessels acting together; or (b)direct importation or exportation by a single vessel. Such vessels are often acquired (i.e. built, leased, purchased, stolen) especially for such operations.

One recent trend has been for smugglers to order specially designed vessels enabling them to transport greater quantities of drugs by sea with less risk of detection and to take maximum advantage of long and sparsely populated coastlines or remote and almost uninhabited islands and cays [4] . Commercial carriers play a relatively minor role.

The attributes of remote coastal areas that make them conducive to such clandestine operations include the lack of observers and detection devices, shorelines suitable for making landings and favourable weather and water conditions. A desolate coast is an attractive site for unloading drugs; because the likelihood of detection and apprehension is considerably small. Because of the remoteness of the area, there is a fair chance that, if an ongoing operation is detected, the smugglers will be able to elude their pursuers. And because the pursuers' reinforcements must travel a large distance from a settlement or support base, the smugglers will have time to complete their operation, abort it and flee, or at least get rid of the drug consignment.

Waters further offshore tend to be less frequently travelled and, therefore, more suitable for operations involving two or more vessels acting together. In such an operation, a mother ship transports the drug shipment from its place of origin to the waters off the country of ultimate destination. There, the drug shipment is transferred to a second vessel (and perhaps others), which brings it to shore.

In waters off a more desolate coastal area, the transfer of drug shipments may take place closer to shore because of the reduced risk of land-based detection. Coastal areas among OECD countries frequently used for direct clandestine importation include the Algarve of Portugal, the southern coastline of Spain, the west coast of the United Kingdom and the Gulf coast of the United States. Coastal areas noted for offshore operations involving mother ships include the eastern seaboards of Canada and the United States.

A more ingenious version of the operation with a mother ship and one or more other vessels involves using the sea-bed and capitalizing on the presence of commercial or recreational fishing vessels. Instead of two vessels actually meeting, the mother ship allows the drug shipment, which has been placed in a waterproof container, to sink to the bottom of the sea with a buoy or signal transmitter attached to it. The shipment is later retrieved by a vessel pretending to be hauling up shellfish traps [5] .

Rain, fog, haze, blizzards, darkness and certain sea conditions (e.g. swell) make visibility poor or nil. Spotter aircraft, patrol vessels and satellites are rendered useless. Radar, the only equipment that can be used in some of these conditions, may also be hampered or unable to detect anything. For drug smugglers with a highly organized operation and state-of-the-art navigational equipment, the occurence of these natural phenomena is most beneficial.

In certain sea conditions, the part of a vessel above the waves may offer a poor reflective surface, thus preventing a proper reflection of radio waves emitted by radar. Vessels conducive to the phenomenon are generally small with a low freeboard and few angular surfaces above the deck.

During inclement weather, patrols are curtailed or discontinued and attention to surveillance and detection equipment is reduced. While conducting a smuggling operation in rough weather is risky, it is not impossible. For vessel operators with the proper experience and equipment, it is a matter of routine.

Concealment of drug shipments on ships and among cargo stowed on ships

Because of the size and intricate structure of ships, the possibilities for concealing drug shipments on them are seemingly endless. It is conceivable that drugs could be concealed on a ship and never be discovered except perhaps by accident or during an elaborate search that would involve disassembling a large part of the ship. The short time allotted to ships to turn round in many ports today precludes thorough rummages. To delay ships for such close inspection without reasonable grounds would cause an uproar among those affected by such delays. Customs authorities must take into account the fact that ships often carry cargo that is perishable and/or urgent [6, 7].

A recent incident illustrative of the sophistication of maritime conceal-ment methods and of how time-consuming uncovering smuggled drugs can be involved the seizure of a drug consignment on the Salton Sea by Customs authorities in the United Kingdom in September 1988 [8] . It took a highly specialized search team several days to uncover a well-hidden consignment of more than 10 tonnes of cannabis.

Drug shipments can also be attached to the hull of a ship or to a chain or line and towed along. Alternatively, they can be concealed in the cargo of commercial carriers and retrieved by shore-based individuals, making the participation of the crew unnecessary. When drugs are concealed among legitimate cargo consignments, the vessels may well be carrying the drugs unknowingly.

The many different types of cargo provide numerous possibilities for drug concealment. Some types of cargo are more suitable than others. The advent of containerized cargo in the 1960s enhanced the viability of concealing drugs among cargo stowed on ships. Because of the extremely large volume of cargo shipped in containers and the limited time and resources available for cargo inspection, the Customs authorities of most countries are unable to check thoroughly every incoming cargo consignment. Certain items, such as coffee sacks, machinery and other equipment, which may be containerized, palletized or loose for handling, are more suitable for drug concealment in that they have narrow openings, compartments and hollow spaces in which to stash drugs. The best suited cargo is dry cargo packed uniformly (in containers, crates, sacks etc.) and conveyed on vessels engaged in both liner services and charter operations.

Petroleum products, petrochemicals carried in bulk, cement and ores are less suitable for drug concealment because of the way they are carried, the nature of the substances themselves or the mechanized cargo-handling systems used in loading and unloading them.

Social and political considerations

In some countries, efforts to combat drug operations are hampered by civil unrest, corruption and/or poverty. In others, efforts are hampered by economic considerations and/or the interpretation of principles of democratic rule.

Many countries simply cannot afford to buy: or maintain the equipment and trained personnel required to control maritime drug trafficking. Patrol vessels, helicopters, aircraft, radar installations, observation posts, telecommunications, weaponry and data processing equipment all require large capital investments. Often, in an effort to curb government spending, something less than adequate is settled for. No country is immune to this problem, as illustrated by the recent $US 70 million cut in the interdiction programme of the United States Coast Guard (9].

What levels of equipment, personnel and overall police presence are enough? The implementation of control measures that are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient and that result in Draconian offensives against drug operations would create an interdiction programme that is Orwellian in character and, for that reason, unacceptable to many countries.

In the trade sector, there would be similar resistance to stricter control measures, especially closer inspection by Customs authorities, as mentioned in the previous subsection. Often Governments cannot afford to interfere with the very activity that sustains the national economy.

In a country where there is more than one law enforcement agency involved in the campaign against drug trafficking, the various law enforcement agencies sometimes compete with each other for increased prestige, projects and funding. Such rivalry results in a lack of communication, co-operation and co-ordination between agencies, which, in turn, leads to bungled offensives against drug trafficking.

Compounding the problem are the different views of Governments regarding the threat that various drugs pose to their societies. On the international level, this divergence in viewpoints fosters anti-trafficking campaigns characterized by Governments pursuing initiatives on their own rather than working together with others.

Possible solutions and strategies for a more effective campaign against maritime drug trafficking

In implementing more effective measures against maritime drug trafficking, there are two aspects to consider: the legislative aspect and the operational aspect.

On the legislative side, two areas of jurisdiction need to be considered: territorial jurisdiction and jurisdiction at the international level. Though there are statutory problems in the relevant law codes of many countries, in all fairness, national legislation is not to blame for the lack of success in combating drug trafficking.

At the international level, there is a paucity of conventions and treaties in force that are specifically aimed at drug trafficking. Both the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the 1972 Protocol [10] , and the

Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971 [11] , put the onus on States to adopt, implement and maintain measures against drug trafficking. Areas outside the territorial boundaries of States are not dealt with in those Conventions.

The few agreements in force that can be regarded as exemplifying the applicability of an anti-trafficking doctrine at the international level are, to some degree, limited, weak or problematic and few deal with the high seas. The United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 [12] is an effort to fill the void, though it has its shortcomings.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [13] provides jurisdictional limitations to those involved in combating maritime drug smugglers. It grants all States the right to apprehend drug traffickers up to 24 nautical miles offshore from the baselines. Furthermore, it gives impetus to the fight against drug trafficking on the high seas by requiring States to co-operate with each other on this matter. It would have been more useful if it had made drug trafficking an offence similar in character to piracy and slave-trading and granted all States the right to search vessels suspected of drug trafficking and, if sufficient evidence is found, seize them, together with their crews and cargo. This would have constituted the invocation of the universality principle.

Additional measures should be explored for dealing with drug trafficking on the high seas. One possibility would be for States to draft a specific treaty regarding drug trafficking on the high seas, though the process would take time and entry into force would not be assured. A second alternative would be for bilateral agreements to be concluded granting their signatories the right to seize each others' vessels on the high seas. A third alternative would be for States to enact national statutes extending their jurisdiction to include extraterritorial areas under strict conditions. The latter alternative, which would offer the best short-term solution, is based on the notion that States can consent to the seizure of their vessels by other States. Under the law of the flag theory, States retain jurisdiction over their vessels on the high seas, as well as the right to determine who may control them [14] . This does not, however, prevent other States from enacting legislation extending their jurisdiction to include foreign vessels on the high seas based upon prior consent or acquiescence of the respective flag States. The United States was the first to do this with the passage of the Marijuana on the High Seas Act [15] , followed by Public Law 99-307 of 19 May 1986. The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Prosecution Improvement Act of 27 October 1986 reinforced the doctrine [16] .

As it is unlikely that the present situation will change much in the near future, there is a need for pragmatic solutions that can work under the prevailing conditions. Hence, the improvements need to be policy-related and operational, accompanied, where necessary, by legal reform. Some suggestions are as follows:

  1. One priority should be the establishment of an effective intelligence system and communications network. This would allow more efficient utilization of the limited resources available.

  2. In conjunction with the above suggestion, a policy for setting priori- ties should be adopted in order to establish where the emphasis of the anti-trafficking programme is to be placed. Though the "zero-tolerance" policy [171 adopted in the United States was a laudable concept, it was not practical. Simply put, it is a waste of time, effort and money to search, seize, process, prosecute and penalize or incarcerate insignificant offenders when the legal system is already overburdened.

  3. There is no excuse for not using naval forces in times of peace to help apprehend maritime drug traffickers. The participation of such forces in drug patrols and offensives would provide them with useful training and, at the same time, complement existing interdiction forces. In States where involvement of the military in civilian affairs is prohibited by the constitution or by law, an amendment might be introduced permitting the military to assist civilian law enforcement agencies. The need for border security is consonant with the need for national security and it is foolish not to make use of the personnel and equipment already available. The United States recognized this concept and amended the Posse Comitatus Act [18] with Public Law 97-86 [19] to allow military participation in the anti-trafficking campaign. The subsequent Defense Drug Interdiction Act of 27 October 1986 further enhanced the role of the military in anti- trafficking offensives [16] .

  4. Specialized international programmes for monitoring certain regions of the ocean should be established. Such programmes would consist of collaborative efforts by the countries of a given region and would utilize a combination of intelligence, surveillance and technical innovation to keep track of all maritime traffic in the region, with particular emphasis on small vessels as opposed to commercial carriers. Though several obstacles, mainly of an administrative and technical nature, would need to be overcome, the direct benefits would be greater awareness and understanding of vessel movements in the region. This, in turn, would permit faster recognition of suspicious movements, facilitate the identification of suspect craft and speed up background data and file checks. One example of such an initiative is Project Cook, a joint proposal by the Customs agencies of Australia, New Zealand and the United States to divide the Pacific Ocean into three regions and focus on the movement of drugs out of South-East Asia.

  5. Another alternative for countries lacking in resources of their own for combating the maritime drug trade would be to allow a country that has the necessary resources to operate either on their behalf or jointly with local personnel in their waters. Similar operations involving various island countries and the United States are, to a limited degree, already being carried out in the Caribbean region [20] . It may be necessary to overcome various legal constraints on the part of all those involved. In the United States, for example, the Mansfield Amendment [21] was revised through the enactment of section 605 of the International Security and Development Co-operation Act of 1985, thus allowing intraterritorial offensives against drug trafficking to take place. As a result, United States law enforcement personnel may be present in another State's waters, and assist local forces, but under rigid guidelines and only when invited to do so.

This list of suggestions is by no means complete. The implementation, where appropriate, of any of them may considerably enhance national and global campaigns against drug trafficking.



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