Scourge of drug smuggling by ship

Crews need to take steps to protect themselves from illegal cargoes

By Felicity Landon

Welded on to the hull or an onboard crane; hidden in containers; loaded into the hold of bulk carriers via the hopper – the methods are various, but the use of ships for drug smuggling is increasing. The implications for seafarers, so easily arrested and imprisoned without charge, are frightening.

‘Miscarriage of justice’ doesn’t quite cover it. We live in a world where a Master who has served an exemplary half a century at sea can be locked up in a Mexican jail, without trial, for two years after reporting to authorities finding 240 kg of cocaine in the hold while in the port of Altamira. Despite co-operating fully with the investigation, Capt Andrzej Lasota was taken off the ship by armed military forces and police – and locked up. He was not provided with a translator. His experience in prison was traumatic. Eventually, he was released without charge.

More than 300 tonnes of cocaine were seized from ships in 2023, according to a Houston conference held by BIMCO, Interpol, InterManager, the World Shipping Council and the Northeast Maritime Institute. Held in January, the ‘Fostering law enforcement/trade cooperation’ conference was organised to discuss the rise in drug smuggling using ships and the abuse of seafarers. Speakers noted that crime networks are becoming more organised and violent and discussed the need for governments to share information about smugglers’ tactics and high-risk areas; they highlighted the unfair treatment of seafarers who discover drugs on board their ships, and the need to update the existing IMO guidance.

‘Bigger challenge than piracy’

Dealing with the threat of drug trafficking is now a bigger challenge to seafarers than piracy, according to INTER- CARGO’s special adviser, Captain Jay K Pillai. “Criminalisation and unfair treatment of seafarers is a worldwide problem, and both seafarer unions and shipping companies wish to see action taken. In too many cases, seafarers are treated as suspects and have their rights to proper legal proceedings denied.”

Pillai was a seafarer for 21 years before coming ashore in 1996, ultimately becoming head of ship management at Pacific Basin Shipping until retiring three years ago. “When I was at sea, we faced petty theft and petty crimes on board; people in port might come and steal items from the store, for example. Later it advanced to targeting the money in the captain’s safe; but these were the biggest problems we had in the 80s and 90s,” he says.

“When I was sailing to South American ports, there used to be drugs attached to the hull on occasions. We used to arrange for a diver inspection and dog search and that gave us peace of mind.”

Today, however, the sophistication of criminal gangs and networks involved in drug trafficking is extraordinary. How can a small and busy crew ever hope to be one step ahead?

“A seafarer has been trained to run ships from A to B and take care of the ship and its cargo. He/she is trained in taking care of safety of lives at sea, to navigate the ship safely without causing damage to the marine environment, to maintain the ship’s machinery and equipment, and to deliver the cargo in the same condition as received on the ship. A seafarer is not a security-trained professional to deal with the criminals – if he was, he would be earning a lot more elsewhere,” says Pillai. “Even with all my experience at sea, I wouldn’t be able to outsmart a criminal gang that wants to put 15 kilos of cocaine on my ship. Ship managers put in cameras, watchmen, dog searches, diver searches – and despite all of this, it is happening.”

A relatively new approach by the gangs is the ‘drop off’ before the vessel reaches port. The criminals know through their networks exactly where the drugs are on board; maybe 20 kms from port, a speedboat approaches, the gang manages to get on board and the drugs are removed.

Law and order inefficiencies

Pillai says much of the current threat to seafarers from all this is down to the various governments’ inefficiencies in dealing with law and order and “complete lack of ability to track, curtail and stop these criminal gangs”.

“The Port State says – we have done our job and introduced the ISPS Code. But if the ISPS Code is introduced properly, and port security is working, seafarers would be able to do their job with no risk of drugs, stowaways, petty theft, etc., and no possibility of unauthorised people coming on to the ship. Seafarers would love to call at a port like that. But if the ISPS Code is not applied properly, drugs can get on board – then seafarers get the blame. But don’t entangle seafarers and ship owners with it. As long as they co-operate with any inquiry and investigation, don’t lock them up for an indefinite period.”

As he says, whether they use planes or ships, criminal gangs will find a way to move the drugs, because this is such a lucrative trade. It’s possible that a stevedore, a local police officer or someone conducting dog searches or underwater hull inspections is in the pay of the criminals.

Pillai emphasises that he is not saying ships or seafarers should escape any investigation when drugs are discovered. “Of course, it’s possible that a seafarer is involved in some way in some incidents, though there was no evidence to suggest that most of the cases reported directly involved any seafarers,” he says.

It’s possible that some seafarers may have to be detained for questioning. “But there has to be a timeframe for this and then they are let go – take a bond, whatever.”

He wants the IMO to introduce a regulation capping that timeframe, with a point at which the seafarer must be released and allowed home to his family – even if that involves payment of a bond and the possibility of being called back to court later. He also wants rules on compensation for seafarers who are unreasonably held. “But it is not just about making a resolution – it is about implementing it and seeing that seafarers are not criminalised.

“Seafarers have been locked up with hardcore criminals, which has been completely traumatic. If you arrest someone and keep them under arrest for two years, you are ruining their career and family life. Then you tell them – you are free now, you can go. But think about the damage done. Do the seafarers get $10m to walk away with for being locked up for nothing? No, they do not. No compensation, no apologies, nothing.”

Unless seafarers see a dramatic turnaround in this criminalisation, “the IMO and its member states and the shipping industry will face attrition of existing trained seafarers and young men and women being deterred from taking up this noble profession”, says Pillai.

Burden of proof?

Sometimes there is an assumption of guilt and a ‘reversal of the burden of proof’, with seafarers trying to prove they are innocent, says Leyla Pearson, senior manager (legal) at the International Chamber of Shipping. She highlights the case of Captain Yu Yihai, kept in prison in Honduras for two years after port authorities in Puerto Cortes discovered bags of cocaine in the vent shaft of a cargo hold during discharge operations, in 2021. “He was held in shackles and with serious criminals. He was detained purely because he was the Master.

Eventually he was released, but this was after being detained for two years, away from his family, and subject to physical sickness as well as mental stress.”

As the Chamber pointed out at the time, Captain Yu’s ordeal was contrary to the principles in the IMO/ILO guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers, the Maritime Labour Convention, and Human Rights law, for trials to be conducted as expeditiously as possible or for the detained person to be released, and for non-custodial alternatives to pre- trial detention to be considered.

“Work is now ongoing in the IMO’s legal committee to develop some guidelines for the fair treatment of seafarers when they are detained on suspicion of committing a maritime crime,” says Pearson. “It is not about saying ‘you should not investigate’. We respect a country’s national laws, etc. But it is about shining a light on the issue, pointing out that seafarers are in a unique category, that they go to these jurisdictions because the owners/ charterers send them there, that they are vulnerable when there and may not speak the language. It is about setting some guidelines to ensure that due process is adhered to – that you have translators, consular access and so on, that if a bond is being offered, the authorities have to consider bail.”

But would these guidelines lead to a change in behaviour? Pearson says: “You hope that if they [states] sign up to the guidelines and endorse them, they would then implement them.”

Guidelines can help

Drugs are a scourge on society, she says, “and we also need to focus on how we investigate these crimes. The guidelines will be useful for that – setting out stages, what you should do, due process. It is a reference point. There has been good engagement, and you would hope they will be followed.”

Prevention is key, she says. “Once drugs are on board the vessel, the ship is obviously going to be investigated.

The ship has responsibility too. But drug traffickers are very innovative and very tenacious. Shut down one route and they will find another. Prevention on the port side is critical. There are links in the chain and drug trafficking can only happen if there are people on either side.”

The Chamber recently published a drug trafficking and abuse guide to be used for seafarer training. Companies must train and keep seafarers updated on what to look for, says Pearson. Recommendations include having people on watch, good lighting, and CCTV or someone videoing loading cargo operations. “You might spot something when it is coming on. But at least if you don’t, you can show the precautions you have been taking. Keep track of who comes on board, keep a visitor log, check ID. But also, there are things that the port should be doing. The ship doesn’t have access to hoppers and loading cranes.”

She highlights the role to be played by P&I clubs, thanks to their networks of contacts and correspondents around the world who can provide information about ports where there are concerns.

Even with all the correct procedures and security protocols in place, this is a daunting issue, says Pearson. “The Master is often in a uniquely vulnerable position because he is responsible for the ship. Sometimes he is taken because he represents the ship. However, I know of one case where a large number of crew of a bulker were detained after something was found in the hopper at discharge. They were released eventually, but not before going through a long legal process.”

One step behind

Steven Jones, global security expert and author of the Nautical Institute’s recently launched Maritime Security – A Practical Guide for Mariners, describes drug trafficking as a constantly evolving threat. “The minute you get closer to knowing what the modus operandi of the drug smugglers is, all of a sudden there will be new innovations,” he says.

Awareness is critical in the fight back. “It is making sure that seafarers are aware of the current risks in the places where they are going and companies supporting the vessels in being able to deal with that – whether with information or extra resources. These are the basics of security – understanding the threats you are facing in the first place and what the implications are.

“Information helps to protect yourself in the initial understanding of the drugs getting on the vessels, but also of the legal climate in these places. Masters who have called the authorities to report drugs have [sometimes] then been caught up in this terrible, almost surreal, psychodrama of being ‘in the frame’. That is staggering. I can only imagine the stress placed on the seafarers in this situation.”

He agrees that P&I clubs are an excellent source of information. “The problem is that security threats are almost constantly evolving. Attention, resources and time can go into addressing a particular type of problem, and suddenly there is less and less resource for the more day-to-day security risks. Also, you can’t expect seafarers to be experts in all these things.”

He knows of situations where drugs have been discovered on board and the crew have had the discussion – ‘what do we do, do we get out beyond territorial waters and then consider what to do?’

He says: “The expression ‘fair treatment’ is a lovely one but has a rather genteel nature about it. The reality is that when these things do come to pass, that is far from the reality of what is being faced criminalisation of seafarers, whether it’s drugs, oil spills or collisions, is a terrible stain on the industry.”

More support needed

Jones says security threats and risks are a “terrible burden to shoulder” if seafarers are not getting the support they should, whether that’s moral, ethical, financial or time and resources. As for measures such as observing or videoing cargo loading, he says that it’s all very well to stipulate extra processes, “but if you are not putting extra people on board, it means others have got to do something else.

You might have 10 people out on deck where are they meant to be, what are they meant to be doing? Lots of vessels use crew to lash the containers. You can’t be doing that and be on top of what is going on, looking over the side. You are simply robbing from one task to complete another.”

When he first started out as a maritime security expert, he was often asked ‘what is the one thing that would make the difference?’ “Whenever I said ‘someone extra on the ship’, everyone would look rather crestfallen. But having the right amount of people to deal with the right amount of things to be done makes all the difference. We are stripping away the levels of crewing to the lowest possible allowable, with no wiggle room within that at all. My one wish is that we get rid of the term ‘minimum safe manning’ so it becomes ‘lowest allowable crewing’.

With the right resources, you improve safety and security of the people on board and the social dynamic. With the right resources on board, you can solve an awful lot of problems.”