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Fair Treatment of Seafarers in Suspected Drug Trafficking Incidents 2020

An enormous amount of work, over many years, has been undertaken by the shipping industry, in co-operation with intergovernmental organisations, to prevent and combat this criminal activity. However, drug trafficking is a huge criminal enterprise and, unfortunately, commercial shipping can unwittingly play a role in the transportation of illicit drugs to the places where they are consumed.

In May 2020, ICS, together with the International Group of P&I Clubs and other international industry organisations, issued an alert concerning the risk of crew arrest and ship detention in Mexico, in the event of the discovery of illegal narcotics on board. This drew attention to a series of recent cases where ships have been detained upon arrival in Mexican ports. This included the case of the ‘UBC Savannah’, where the ship’s Master has been held in custody since July 2019.

According to the Mexican Federal Code of Criminal Procedure, anyone accused of drugs related offenses must remain in prison for the duration of the pre-trial period, regardless of the possibility of innocence.

The damage caused to Mexico by drug trafficking, and the need to combat and deter this criminal activity using the full force of the law, is fully understood. However, there is a serious concern about the apparent indiscriminate application of the Code and the disproportionate approach often taken by public prosecutors in cases of ship and seafarer detentions. In some cases, seafarers have been arrested when illegal narcotics have been discovered on board and reported in advance, at the earliest opportunity, to the local authorities at the port of arrival in Mexico by the crew themselves. This concern has been communicated to the Mexican Government by ICS and the other industry organisations which have engaged with relevant authorities in seeking the release of both the Master of the ‘UBC Savannah’ and other ships that are currently detained. In August 2020, a trial date for the Master was expected to be set imminently. More positively, the Mexican Government has established a task force with a view to expediting investigations following the discovery of illegal narcotics on board ships. ICS and other international industry organisations have offered their assistance. In light of the cases in Mexico, and similar incidents elsewhere, ICS has also supported an initiative at IMO, led by Ukraine, for an IMO/ILO joint working group to be established. This would consider the development of guidelines to ensure the fair treatment of seafarers in the event they are detained on suspicion of involvement in crimes. This will be considered
when meetings of the IMO Legal Committee resume.