Drug traffickers engage in a creative game of hide and seek with coast guards and other security forces that board their ships at sea.
Rubén Navarrete, a Mexican Navy captain based in the western state of Michoacán, told Televisa News last November that those dedicated to maritime smuggling could only be restricted by one thing: their own imagination. A spate of recent seizures prove his point as traffickers have been getting more inventive with hiding places both above and below deck.
InSight Crime looks at some of the most popular and creative ways narcotics have been concealed aboard ships over the years and how this continues to evolve.
In some cases, drugs have been stored in the same compartment as the anchor, to which few people would have access. In 2019, media reports shared how nearly 15 kilograms of cocaine had been found concealed in a vessel’s anchor compartment, as it was docked in the Dominican Republic’s Puerto Caldera.
Otherwise, anchors have been used to facilitate the delivery of drugs once a ship has reached its point of arrival. In 2017, Spanish authorities announced the seizure of more than a ton of cocaine from a Venezuelan flagged vessel at high sea. The nation’s Interior Ministry detailed how law enforcement agents had observed around 40 suspicious packages onboard, that were linked by ropes and fixed to two anchors.
This was reportedly so crew members could throw illicit loads into the sea in the shortest time possible, to avoid being detected. Authorities observed how two of the crew tried to achieve this before being caught out with four other people who were onboard.
The anchor’s use in drug trafficking has been based on pragmatism, often attracting smugglers planning to make an express, maritime delivery.
One of the most common ways traffickers have attempted to smuggle drugs overseas has been through concealing illicit substances among supplies onboard, often located in the ship’s principal hold or hull. The “gancho ciego” or “rip-on rip-off” technique has commonly been used to send cocaine across the Atlantic, meaning smugglers regularly attempt to conceal drugs in containers which have already undergone checks carried out by customs officials.
As InSight Crime reported last year, scrap metal shipments have posed a sizeable problem for authorities in this respect, due to scanners being unable to pick up on smaller quantities of drugs when they are hidden among vast volumes of scrap. Equally, authorities have found it more difficult to deploy sniffer dogs to detect drugs in such cases, as the animals may get injured when performing their duties.
Otherwise, illicit substances have commonly been smuggled in among foodstuffs. In October of last year, Spain’s Civil Guard announced it had seized over a ton of cocaine at high sea. Authorities reportedly found the drug between bags of maize on a ship traveling from Brazil to the Spanish province of Cádiz.
And at the end of 2019, authorities in Italy discovered close to 1.3 tons of cocaine within a refrigerated container carrying bananas, which had arrived from South America. This followed a record seizure made at the nation’s Port of Livorno earlier that year, where over half a ton of the drug was found concealed in a container seemingly carrying coffee from Honduras.
Given the widespread use of this technique, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has worked with the World Customs Organization (WCO) to carry out a worldwide container control program, in an attempt to combat such efforts.
3. Captain’s Cabin
Drugs have previously been seized from inside the captain’s personal belongings. Such attempts are rarely revealed, requiring a significant level of corruption on a captain or crew’s behalf to work effectively.
Last year, Uruguay’s naval forces seized five kilograms of cocaine in the front cabin of a Chinese flagged ship, which had reached Montevideo from Brazil, according to media reports. Subrayado revealed how the captain himself had denounced the illicit load on discovering it.
On the other hand, in 2018, authorities in Paraguay detained a ship’s captain, after he was accused of smuggling drugs among his personal possessions in the cabin, Ultima Hora reported, citing the Attorney General’s Office. Officials reportedly seized over 150 kilograms of cocaine at the nation’s Port of Asunción, just as the drugs were about to be transported to Europe on behalf of a ‘known trafficker’ who allegedly worked for a Paraguayan criminal organization.
Another potential hiding place for traffickers seeking to export illicit wares has been close to a given ship’s funnel. This is incredibly rare, however it has been known to occur.
El Tiempo’s archives suggest that over two decades ago, in 1996, authorities found cocaine hidden in ships belonging to Peruvian armed forces. Following a spate of related seizures, just under 30 kilograms of cocaine were discovered in a compartment near to the funnel of a ship belonging to the navy, anchored three miles from the Lima port of Callao. Days later, another 25 kilograms of the drug were reportedly found in the hold of the same ship.
This hiding place has rarely been used when reported seizures are considered, perhaps due to difficulties in smugglers being able to get close to a vessel’s funnel without being detected, and the limited quantity of illicit substances a given group would be able to conceal there.
Traffickers have been concealing drugs inside the vents along ship hulls, as smuggling below deck has taken off.
In 2019, InSight Crime reported that a trafficking network headed by Colombians had been sending cocaine to Europe from the Peruvian ports of Pisco and Chimbote, principally through employing divers to weld sealed packets of the drug into vents located in the hulls of ships. Up to 600 kilograms were reportedly smuggled per ship, without the crew’s knowledge.
In September of that year, Spanish authorities seized just over 50 kilograms of cocaine concealed in the submerged part of a merchant ship, after it reached the island of Gran Canaria from Brazil, EFE reported. According to the media outlet, officials detailed how part of the illicit load had been found inside a manipulated vent below deck.
And months later, in December 2019, police in Ecuador revealed how divers had discovered over 300 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the lower vents of a maritime vessel. According to authorities, the cocaine was seized before it could be smuggled onward to Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
When drugs are concealed below deck, ship vents are perhaps one of the most popular hiding places traffickers use, even if divers are typically required to facilitate this.
6. Water Inlets
Staying below deck, criminal actors have used water inlets to conceal drugs and facilitate trafficking operations. While this hiding place is less common than traditional favorites, sophisticated networks have been working with divers to store packets of illicit substances inside such valves.
Last August, media outlets shared how authorities in Chile had detained a group of 15 suspects (including Chilean, Peruvian and Venezuelan nationals) after they had allegedly worked to transport drugs from Peru to the country’s northern region of Antofagasta and the western zone of its capital, Santiago. The organization had reportedly been concealing drugs within the water inlets of a Peru-flagged merchant ship.
The vessel’s water inlets were reportedly used so a diver who formed part of the illicit network could extract concealed packets of drugs as the ship passed Chile’s northern port city of Mejillones. Reports from local media suggested the diver had been reaching the vessel on a boat with an electric motor which made little noise, to avoid being detected. On dismantling the group, authorities reportedly seized 1.7 billion pesos (over $2.3 million) worth of drugs, including over 20 kilograms of cocaine, more than 180 kilograms of marijuana, as well as smaller quantities of ketamine, LSD and MDMA.
This method is more complex than simply hiding drugs in a container located in the ship’s hull in that it typically requires somebody reliable on the other end to dive down and collect clandestine packages, all while avoiding maritime authorities.
7. The Hull
An increasingly popular approach adopted by traffickers has been to hide drugs below deck, within or attached to a ship’s watertight hull. Divers are often employed by criminal groups to facilitate such operations.
In 2019, InSight Crime shared how ship hulls have been increasingly used to facilitate drug trafficking, particularly by smugglers taking advantage of vessels disembarking from Ecuador and Peru. Criminal groups have picked up on how attaching drug shipments to the hulls of ships makes illicit substances near imposible to detect using standard inspection procedures.
However, officials have been combatting such cunning attempts. In 2018, Chile’s navy detailed how authorities had detained members of a gang working to smuggle drugs in the hulls of ships headed from Colombia to the nation. Authorities seized over 350 kilograms of “creepy” style marijuana, after a ship which had originally disembarked from Taiwan arrived at Chile’s Port of San Antonio, following a stop in Colombia. At the port, maritime police intercepted three Colombian divers as they attempted to pass seven packages of the drug from the ship’s hull to a fishing boat manned by two Chilean nationals.
In November of last year, Televisa News interviewed a naval diver based in Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico’s state of Michoacán, who claimed such methods have been putting authorities at risk, with trained divers searching for illicit substances in crocodile-filled waters, in some cases.
8. Fuel Tank
While we may be more used to seeing drugs concealed in car fuel tanks, smugglers on ships have replicated this tactic.
Last April, the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reported on how the island nation’s coast guard had intercepted a ship carrying an estimated $160 million worth of cocaine. Sources consulted by the media outlet revealed officials had discovered 400 kilograms of the drug in the vessel’s fuel tanks, adding that they had to perform a “destructive search” to reach the cocaine, as the hidden stash was kept in a secret enclosure, tightly wrapped in waterproof material.
On a smaller scale, back in 2015, authorities in the Dominican Republic seized just short of 80 packets of presumed cocaine, onboard a vessel destined for Puerto Rico, according to Diario Libre. The drugs had been found spread across six buckets located in the boat’s fuel tank compartment.
This method is far from the most common used by maritime smugglers and its intricacy has varied from case to case. However, through its ability to accommodate everything from drug-filled buckets to illicit packages wrapped in impermeable material, a ship’s fuel compartment should not be discounted as a hiding place.
The so-called “torpedo method” has been highly popular among smugglers. Criminal groups have been filling makeshift tubes (also known as “torpedoes”) with drugs, tying such containers to the bottom of ship hulls with rope, so illicit loads may be cut off at high sea if authorities get too close.
In 2018, police in Colombia discovered 40 kilograms of cocaine inside a sealed torpedo attached to a ship destined for the Netherlands. A police news release detailing the seizure explained how divers may take advantage of a vessel’s drainage level system to attach such containers with hooks, ahead of transatlantic journeys lasting up to 20 days.
Two years earlier, InSight Crime reported on how this method had been applied extensively by traffickers based in Colombia.
In 2015, authorities in the nation caught 14 people suspected of being in a gang dedicated to smuggling drugs in cylinders attached to ship hulls. To facilitate the group’s operations, illicit divers — one of whom was reportedly linked to the navy — bolted the containers to stabilizer fins of vessels, according to El Heraldo. The media outlet added that the cylinders were manufactured by a metal working expert, who also covered them with fiber glass.
But torpedoes have not just been bolted to ships setting sail from Colombia. As far back as 2011, InSight Crime reported on how Peruvian police had found just over 100 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside a makeshift torpedo attached to the bottom of a boat in a Lima port.
The torpedo method is intricate and often requires specialist involvement, from trained divers to metal workers producing the containers. However, this technique has become increasingly popular with traffickers who want to minimize the risk of being caught with illicit loads at high sea.
10. Engine Room
Drugs have been frequently hidden in rooms restricted to select crew members, often implicating those with inside knowledge in such cases.
In 2014, police in Ecuador seized over 20 kilograms of cocaine, found in a ship which had arrived at the nation’s Port of Manta from Singapore. According to authorities, the drugs were discovered in the vessel’s engine room, in two packages: a suitcase and a jute sheath.
Three years later, authorities reportedly found just under 90 kilograms of cocaine in the engine room of a steamship docked at the Port of Palermo in Colombia, according to El Heraldo. Media reports suggested the load was ultimately headed for Brazil. But before the vessel could disembark, tip-offs led authorities to find the drugs in one of the ship’s most restricted places.
Nearly two decades ago, a Colombian naval training ship was found with over 26 kilograms of cocaine and heroin in its engine room. At the time, media outlets said the drugs could have been linked to self-defense groups in Cúcuta.
While this restricted room has been used to conceal smaller quantities of drugs, it is far from a popular place for smuggling to occur, particularly without some form of insider knowledge.
In a particularly creative move, traffickers have been known to hide drugs under the propellors of maritime vessels.
Last December 8, the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) shared how police divers in Puerto Rico’s port of San Juan had found just under 40 kilograms of cocaine worth approximately $1 million under a cargo vessel’s bow thruster, inside two marine net bags.
Roberto Vaquero, assistant director of field operations for border security in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands stated that smugglers had been using “very creative means to conceal their illicit drug loads into the international supply chain”.
Using a vessel’s propellors to do so is perhaps one of the most innovative albeit among the least reported ways in which smugglers have been moving illicit loads.
12. Store Room
A ship’s sail store room is out of bounds for most, but traffickers have found a way to use it to their advantage.
Naval training ships have been mobile transit hubs for drugs in the past through the use of restricted spaces. Off limits storage rooms have been used to conceal illicit loads during transatlantic voyages.
In August 2014, after a Spanish navy training ship arrived home following a six month cruise, authorities seized 127 kilograms of cocaine from a storage room where the folded sails were kept, El País reported. The media outlet suggested that very few people had access to this space.
During its voyage, the ship had stopped off in Cartagena, Colombia and then in New York. Three of its crew members were accused of selling drugs to traffickers in the US state, according to El País.
Such incidences are rare and usually rely on the direct involvement of corrupt officials or armed forces themselves.
Traffickers have been using nets attached to ships to their advantage, predominantly to bring drugs aboard.
In June 2019, media outlets revealed how traffickers had snuck over 16.5 tons of cocaine onto a cargo ship, following a billion-dollar drug bust in the US state of Philadelphia. It was reported that the ship’s second mate told investigators he had seen nets near the ship’s crane that contained bags with handles for transporting the cocaine, confessing that he and about four others had hoisted the bags onto the ship and loaded them into containers, after being promised a paycheck of $50,000 by the vessel’s chief officer.
This tactic has been used to facilitate the popular “gancho ciego,” or “rip-on, rip-off” technique.
By Katie Jones, February 20, 2021, published on InSight Crime