Colombia: Drug smuggling at Colombian ports

Port news

Published: 17 September 2018

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Colombian ports in general present drug trafficking risks. Some, such as Barranquilla, are deemed at lower risk, even though they have recently had a few security- or drug-related incidents.

Drug searches by members are not mandatory, nor do members need to take special measures in most Colombian ports, excepting Puerto Bolivar and Puerto Drummond, where they are expected. However, our local correspondents advise searches be conducted in any Colombian port. Such inspections can be undertaken by the navy or by private diving companies.

Guidelines for members when trading in Colombia

A. Measures before entry

  • Advise the master and crew of the increased probability of drug smuggling on vessels calling at any Colombian port, emphasising the need for extra vigilance while at anchor or alongside.
  • Crew going onshore should be informed that it is common practice in Colombia for drug traffickers to befriend them in order to achieve their cooperation.
  • Prior to the vessel's arrival, the port agent must provide the master with the relevant updated data related to the relevant Colombian port.
  • The ship should keep accurate records of all activities observed and the actions taken by local authorities, stevedores, and other shore-based personnel and crew before entry into port, during the stay, and immediately after departure.

B. While in port or at anchor

  • Prior to sailing, an underwater inspection could be undertaken by a reliable private diving company in the presence of the P&I correspondent. The estimated cost is approximately US$3,000. Please note that such an inspection is not possible at Barranquilla due to the muddy water conditions.
  • Although Buenaventura's terminals comply with ISPS standards, it is advisable to provide additional, private security on board.
  • Guards may be arranged to patrol around the vessel in launches 24 hours a day. The guards should be instructed to keep a close eye on small craft and fishing boats operating in the vicinity of the vessel, on unidentified divers, and on air bubbles rising to the surface, and to monitor the vessel's stern area very carefully to ensure that no one gains access to the rudder trunk. Please note, however, that these measures can be fairly costly.
  • Documentary evidence of the security measures taken by the vessel when visiting Colombian ports should be maintained. Permanent watchmen should be present in areas where stevedores or repair technicians are working on board the ship. Any suspicious activities conducted onboard by third parties should be reported to the master.
  • Watchmen should be alert to any packages being brought onto the vessel. Each should be thoroughly checked prior to being permitted on board.
  • A strict watch should be maintained at the gangway or the accommodation ladder, and access permitted only persons with a legitimate reason for coming on board.
  • The crew should perform regular shipboard inspections throughout the duration of the port call.
  • During hours of darkness all areas should be well lit in order to facilitate visual monitoring of activities.
  • When possible, place additional lighting over the side to illuminate the surrounding water and the quayside at night. The use of a searchlight during the hours of darkness should be considered.
  • When seals for compartments, lockers, containers etc. are discovered to be broken or missing, an investigation should be conducted. If nothing is found, the seals should be replaced by the crew.
  • A record should be made in the logbook, together with a note of the outcome of the investigation and search. The relevant seal numbers should be inserted.
  • If the master suspects a drug smuggling attempt on board the ship, he or she should immediately report it to the local authorities and the P&I correspondent.
  • So far as possible, instruct the ship's crew to remain on board throughout the vessel's stay in port, and not to go ashore unless absolutely necessary.

C. Actions to be taken if drugs are found onboard

  • Immediately notify the Club, the local P&I correspondent, and the shipowner or manager.
  • It is very important that the master shows a high degree of co-operation with local authorities. This will result in a positive attitude on the part of the authorities, thereby avoiding unnecessary and costly delays.
  • Immediately advise the police at the port. This can be done directly by the master, or through the vessel's agents, and will mitigate the risk of the master and the crew becoming part of the criminal investigation.
  • Photograph or make a video of the area of the ship where the drugs are found, but leave the site untouched, and seal it off to prevent unauthorized access.
  • If drugs are found on board, the crew members and the master may be temporarily placed in custody. They will be part of a preliminary investigation. The vessel will be detained at port for further investigation. Sometimes, when drugs are found within containers, the containers may be confiscated as evidence.

D. Additional comments and recommendations

  • If possible in Colombian ports, members should avoid bunkering, ship's chandler services, and taking on provisions.
  • A common place for hiding drugs is inside the rudder compartment. It is therefore recommended, for vessels calling repeatedly at Colombian ports, that a grating or other suitable barrier is fitted to prevent access.
  • Underwater inspections at Barranquilla are not frequent because the waters are very murky and silted, making the visibility very low. Additionally the river current is fairly strong, and may seriously compromise the safety of divers. For these reasons it is extremely difficult for smugglers to work underwater and attach drugs to the vessel's hull.
  • If, however, shipowners choose to perform an underwater survey at Barranquilla, it must be made outside the river waters in open sea, usually at a location called CaƱo Agua Dulce. These underwater surveys require the approval of the harbour master's office.
  • It is mandatory for the vessel to maintain a pilot on board at all times during the survey. For this reason, the cost for these surveys can be very high, ranging between US$7,000 and US$12,000, even if the actual diving inspection costs only around US$3,500.
  • If an underwater survey is carried out, particular attention should be paid to the bilge keels, sea chests, tunnel thruster gratings, sacrificial anodes, and the rudder trunk. Our local correspondents can assist with suggesting reliable diving/underwater inspection companies.
  • It is very important to determine the rotation of the vessel. For example, if the vessel is calling at Acajutla and the north central American ports first, the risk of drug smuggling is minimal. The highest risk rotation is from Colombia, Panama, or Costa Rica, to North or Central American ports.

E. Punishment established under Colombian law

When drugs are found there are two separate authorities involved for different purposes as follows:

E.1 Harbour Master (HM) office, Port Authorities

In principle, the HM will investigate any breach of local maritime regulations. At the beginning of the investigation the HM is entitled to detain the vessel for further examination, or demand a guarantee. In the ordinary course of events, briefly explained, the procedure would have the following steps:

  • HM opens the investigation, notifies the involved parties, and sets a date for the first hearing. During the first hearing the HM orders evidence and receives statements. If considered necessary the HM requests security to avoid the detention of the vessel. The parties file initial pleadings.
  • The HM then analyses the evidence gathered.
  • The parties file final pleadings, and the HM issues a first-instance decision.
  • This decision is confirmed or revised by the Maritime Directorate.
  • If the HM decides to open an investigation for breaches of maritime regulations, the proceedings may last around three years. In a worst-case scenario, the result of the investigation is a fine issued by the HM against the ship. Although in theory these fines could reach US$50,000, in practice they have almost never been higher than US$10,000.
  • It takes about eight months to obtain the first decision by HM, and about two years to have it revised by the Maritime Directorate.

E.2 Public prosecutor - Criminal investigation

The Colombian judicial system is inquisitorial, and in principle criminal liability is directed against a specific named person. In a worst-case scenario a crew member is detained, and the crew has the right to be represented by a lawyer. Precautionary detention is a possibility when the authorities consider that a person is dangerous to the community, or amidst indications that the person will escape to avoid prosecution.

In general terms the Colombian criminal code states that there are two offenses related to drugs:

  1. Any person involved in the traffic, production or carriage of illegal drugs will be subject to the penalty of imprisonment from eight to twenty years and a fine of between 1,000 and 50,000 Colombian monthly minimum wages.
  2. Any person that may use or allow the use of movable goods for the production, storage or carriage of illegal drugs will be subject to the penalty of imprisonment from six to twelve years and a fine of between 1,000 to 50,000 Colombian monthly minimum wages.

If criminal liability is declared in the final instance, and where it is proven that the shipowner was involved with the drug trade, the vessel can be permanently seized by Colombian authorities. Criminal liability must be established by a judge in the final instance. In a hypothetical case where the public prosecutor involves a vessel in a criminal investigation, the prosecutor in principle has three options, in terms of the vessel's detention:

  • Decide not to involve the vessel in the criminal investigation due to a lack of indications of liability of the vessel/crew (so clearance is granted).
  • Formally involve the crew/vessel at the criminal investigation, but allow the vessel's departure on condition that the next time the vessel calls at port all the crew members and the master will be interviewed and the vessel inspected.
  • Order the vessel's seizure, refusing her departure (keeping her in custody during the whole investigation).

Choice from these options depends on the circumstances of how the drugs were found. In any case, experience shows that in practice it is very unlikely that prosecutors will decide to seize the vessel. To detain it, the prosecutor must have strong indications that the shipowner or disponent owner was:

  • Actively participating in the production, storage, carriage or sale of illegal drugs.
  • Indirectly permitting the production, storage, carriage or sale of drugs due to grossly negligent conduct.

The crew, if not personally involved in any investigation, and in case the vessel is detained, may be repatriated without inconvenience.

Our recommendations

Even though the possibility of an illegal substance being concealed on board may be relatively low in Colombian ports, it is wise for members to consider these recommendations, especially if the members' rotation begins in a Colombian port.

The Association is grateful to our correspondents Marventura Services Ltd. and A&A Multiprime for contributing to this article.