Narcotics smuggling - increasing risk for ships

Port news

Published: 28 September 2021

Packets of cocaine opening with a knife on grey background
Credit to: Africa Studio /

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently released its World Drug Report 2020, revealing that the trafficking of drugs by air to varying degrees has been impacted by the restrictions of movement and the closure of borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Due to the restrictions imposed on air travel, the biggest impact on drug trafficking can thus be expected in countries where a large proportion of drugs is trafficked by air. However, although COVID-19 has caused disruptions in global supply chains, cocaine smuggling has thrived with the increased use of commercial shipping and there has been a growth in shipment sizes and the organised criminal gangs (OGCs) behind them have become more inventive.

Drug trafficking trends

Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia continue to be the world’s top three producers of cocaine. The 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report revealed that Colombia is the largest producer and supplies the most cocaine to North America and Europe. The second largest producer is Peru, which exports cocaine to the US, Mexico, Europe, and East Asia. And Bolivia is the third largest producer, which is also a transit country for cocaine from Peru, largely exporting to other countries in Latin America, West Africa, and Europe. Factors that contribute to the extent of drug trafficking are the capacity of law enforcement to control trafficking, corruption in government bodies, strategic location, population density, and characteristics of the coastline.

The 2021 report also highlighted that the two largest markets in the world are North America and Europe. Consumption in North America has remained high in the last decade, fuelled by cocaine primarily from Colombia. Of the cocaine seized in the US in 2020, 89% was from Colombia, which primarily utilises two routes: the Eastern Pacific Vector and the Western Caribbean Vector.

Similarly, the UNODC has reported an increase in maritime drug trafficking from Colombia and a decrease in cocaine trafficking by land. Relatively recent large seizures of cocaine made in European ports demonstrate that the trafficking of large shipments of cocaine is still ongoing. This is also reflected by the uptick on the number of incidents involving smuggling by sea via the Eastern Pacific Vector, which makes up about 70% of cocaine movement. The route facilitates cocaine leaving Colombia and Ecuador, into Mexican ports.

The UNODC’s seizure data further supports this with an indication that most of the cocaine available in European drug markets is smuggled to Europe by sea, primarily in maritime container shipments entering at major container ports such as Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Valencia. UNODC notes in the 2020 report that a reduction in air traffic to Europe resulting from the COVID-19 restrictions would likely lead to an increase in direct cocaine shipments by sea from South America to Europe and increased shipments of cocaine to North America via Mexico.

The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to lead to a lasting transformation of the drug markets. The economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 crisis may affect people who are already in a position of socioeconomic disadvantage. This could lead to an increase in the number of people resorting to illicit activities linked to drugs to make a living and/or being recruited into drug trafficking organizations. Based on the experience of the economic crisis of 2008, it is fair to assume that the economic downturn may lead to reductions in drug-related budgets among governments, and an overall increase in drug use. Conversely, the economic crisis caused by the pandemic is also increasing food insecurity in Central and South America, which could lead to another increase in cocaine production in the coming years.

Ports of concern

Risk Intelligence documented that port operations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean regions should be subject to rigorous precautionary measures and vigilance. Generally, larger ports are attractive transit points for smugglers because of the quick movement of products. Therefore, smuggling volume is roughly proportional with the size of the port. However, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela are considered particularly high-risk countries for the transit of cocaine. Whereby the Western Caribbean Vector is a particular route of concern from Barranquilla, Colombia to Altamira, Mexico where cocaine has been seized along this route in bulk carriers.

Potential implications for vessel owners, operators, and crew

When narcotics are discovered onboard, the consequences can rapidly escalate and become severe for both the vessel owner and crew. There may be resulting delays due to ongoing investigations by the authorities, which may take time and lead to the loss of hire and consequential claims from cargo interests. The vessel may also be detained by the authorities, sometimes for an undefined period, with potential arrest and/or disembarkation of the crew for questioning and shore detention in prison if the crew is suspected to be complicit. A substantial fine may also be imposed and/or the vessel may be threatened with confiscation depending on the jurisdiction involved.

Vessel owners and operators are recommended to co-operate fully with any authority carrying out such investigation(s) irrespective of the jurisdiction.

It is recommended that that clearly worded provisions are incorporated into the charterparties and bills of lading to ensure that disputes do not result from contractual ambiguities.