Skip to content

Shipping takes action on drug smuggling

Leadership Insights newsletter story

9 February 2024
Industry leaders are pushing back on drug smugglers activity with joint ventures. Image credit: Shutterstock

Global drug activity has increased by an estimated 23% between 2011 and 2021, with some 296 million users worldwide, per United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Traffickers have been particularly successful at evading detection at ports, and have begun to utilise increasingly innovative methods to achieve their aims — such as hacking into customs computer systems to preclear consignments before inspection.  

“Drug use is increasing,” Chris Trelawny, Deputy Secretary General of INTERPORTPOLICE tells ICS Leadership Insights, adding that seafarers carry the risk of becomingthe unwitting victims of traffickers” if they are arrested for involvement in illegal activities. 

Given the vast amount of trade moving quickly, resolving the issue will be challenging. Per Europol’s March 2023 report, only  2-10% of containers transiting EU ports are physically inspected, making detection of illicit goods extremely challenging and allowing a number of such shipments to slip through loopholes in port procedures.

“Over the last five years, the size of the consignments has increased significantly.” David Caunter, Assistant Director, Criminal Networks at INTERPOL tells ICS Leadership Insights. “Additionally, destination countries rarely scan and search 100 percent of the containers, making this a very lucrative business model.” 

The industry has launched multiple countermeasures in response to this concern. The EU recently allocated funds of €200m to Port of Antwerp-Bruges (PoAB)’s proposal, Certified Pick Up. The digital platform was launched in January 2024 and implements an efficient and faster way of managing container transport. 

“By passing the digital release right to the next party in the chain you know which parties are involved in import container flow. Also, every container needs to clear customs before it can leave the terminal and be picked up on the basis of identity.” Kurt Van Loon, Project Manager of Certified Pick up tells ICS Leadership Insights.  “This will prevent fraud, improve security and make acting with bad intentions more difficult.” 

A larger scale response, the Port Security Project by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and INTERPOL, was launched in April 2021 with the goal of enhancing the capabilities of the law enforcement agencies and port authorities against security threats such as drug smuggling.

Gisela Viera, Programme Manager, Maritime Security at IMO tells ICS Leadership Insights, “The Port Security Project helps specific countries to further develop capacity in port security, including implementing the SOLAS Chapter XI-2 and the ISPS Code, which among other things set a methodology for security assessments by ships and port facilities. The Project assists in the development of security plans and procedures in response to security threats including drug smuggling.”

According to Caunter, the project has demonstrated an international response to drug trafficking. “In the last three years alone, the Port Security Project has led to the arrest of a drug trafficker behind a five-tonne cocaine seizure in Brazil; the seizure of 7.5 tonnes of ivory in Vietnam; and the rescue of 60 human trafficking victims off the coast of Namibia.”

Caunter also mentions INTERPOL’s robust six-year drugs programme, I-RAID. Its goal is “to cooperate and address the complex criminal networks contributing to drug trafficking and associated criminal activities through a three-pronged approach.” This approach covers: increasing information sharing and actionable intelligence to member countries; providing relevant specialised tools and training; and facilitating international cooperation between relevant partners.

Trelawny believes that cross sector action is the only way to address the issue. “The key to addressing drug trafficking is cooperation, coordination and communication of all levels, between law enforcement, border control and the private sector,” he says.

An example of such successful cooperation is Operation TIN CAN. Organised by the World Customs Organization (WCO), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the Australian Border Force in partnership with members of the World Shipping Council, it oversaw a major joint operation involving customs, police, and other agencies from across the world to crack down on organised crime and insider threats exploiting the container supply chain.

Under Operation TIN CAN, which ran from 14 November to 9 December 2022, 58 countries cooperated to carry out 43 arrests and 158 drug seizures, including the seizure of 98,734 kilograms of cocaine and 314 kilograms of cannabis herbals.