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Article: Drug Smuggling Preventative Measures

News & Insights 11 June 2020

This article aims to provide advice on the preventative measures for ships calling at all ports vulnerable to drug smuggling.


Smuggling can involve anything from illegal drugs to protected wildlife. Most illicit drugs are smuggled via sea route.

The 2019 world drug report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that “…over half of significant seizures of cocaine (55%) over the period of 2013–2017 were related to trafficking at sea”.

Page 24 of the aforementioned report shares a map depicting the global cocaine trafficking routes, which highlights that the drug continues to be trafficked primarily from South America, as well as via Central America.
There have been reported instances of illegal drugs being hidden in cargo spaces, containers or attached to the hull of ships. Another smuggling method developed to elude detection is the mixing of cocaine or heroin with a liquid substance, a tactic for camouflaging the drugs. The non-drug liquid substance can vary from gasoline/industrial oils to fruit juices to vegetables/coconut oil to water to cleaning liquid substances. Once the cargo shipment reaches its destination, the smugglers mix in acetone or ether and allow the drug to separate from the legitimate liquid. The entire operation shows a high degree of technical expertise as well as a thorough understanding of shipping and types of cargoes.

Depending on the jurisdiction, the consequences of discovering contraband on board may include ship detention, fines, and criminal prosecution of the master and crew. The risk of seafarers and ships becoming inadvertent victims of drug smuggling has a negative impact on the image of the shipping industry and the attractiveness of a seafaring career.

IMO’s Fair Treatment Guidelines were adopted in 2006 with the intention of ensuring that seafarers are treated fairly following a maritime accident. Section III: Guidelines for the port or coastal State, in particular, demands that the seafarers are afforded with all due process protections, that their human rights are preserved and that trials take place as expeditiously as possible.

Given the rising number of drug trafficking cases and the increasing liabilities that might be imposed (ranging from ship and crew detentions to enormous fines), members are encouraged to maintain a constant and high state of vigilance against smuggling when visiting high-risk areas. This article aims to provide advice on the preventative measures for ships calling at all ports vulnerable to drug smuggling.

Loss prevention measures

The following practical measures can be established on board to mitigate the risk of drug smuggling:

Actions to be taken prior to a ship’s call at ports susceptible to drug smuggling

  • The vessel should take into account the severity of the threat posed at the specific port. A comprehensive port update should be obtained from the local agent or correspondent prior to the ship’s arrival.
  • A thorough risk assessment should be prepared by the Ship’s Security Officer (SSO) in close co-ordination with the Company Security Officer (CSO) and Port Facility Security Officer (PFSO) to prevent any security incident.
  • In known drug smuggling areas, members should consider hiring additional security watchmen from approved shore suppliers.
  • The master and SSO should arrange crew training sessions regarding the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, Ship’s Security Plan (SSP), security duties, port operations and overall general awareness to reduce the security threats.
  • Awareness against the use and possession of drugs on board ships is necessary among crewmembers. Crew should be briefed in advance of a port call that any such co-operation with the drug traffickers/smugglers may not only violate company policy but also result in severe consequences by local authorities.
  • Rudder trunk spaces, overboard openings, exposed thrusters/propeller regions are some of the accessible areas likely to be used by the drug traffickers for storing illegal substances. It is recommended to install physical barriers to prevent any unauthorised access in these spaces.

Actions to be taken whilst at port susceptible to drug smuggling

  • A list of all visitors seeking to board the ship and their reasons for doing so should be confirmed by local agents. Strict access control with thorough entry checks (verifying photo IDs, work orders, etc) should be implemented. Those unwilling to co-operate or provide suitable proof of identity should be denied access to the ship.
  • Visitors boarding the vessel should be liable to random search in accordance with the current security level procedures stated in the SSP. Any such security screening shall be undertaken in a sensitive manner.
  • The vessel should keep an accurate record of all activities on and around the vessel from arrival until departure. The log should be frequently checked by the watchmen and SSO for any irregularities in the entries.
  • Vigilance should be maintained while in port or at anchor, including enhanced security patrols on deck and continuous monitoring of all restricted areas (especially during hours of darkness or poor visibility). Additional lighting across all areas on exposed decks should be arranged to illuminate all possible shadow areas.
  • Any suspicious activity observed close to the vessel (divers or small boats) should be immediately communicated to the master and, in turn, the master should report this situation to the local authorities. In such cases, it is recommended to perform an underwater hull inspection before departure (some ports may enforce official drugs and underwater hull inspection before ship’s sailing).
  • In case the vessel is taking bunkers, it is recommended that the master contacts the local agent or correspondent to make enquiries as to the bunker supplier being a reputable company with a clean record.
  • There have been cases where even the stevedores and shore gangs have been found to be involved in smuggling illicit drugs by befriending ship’s crew and luring them into the illegal activities. Crew should be aware of the risks involved in engaging in such activity and should report such incidents to the master/SSO.
  • A thorough search of all compartments shall be carried out prior to the ship’s departure and again after disembarking the pilot (but before commencement of the sea passage). All events and searches shall be duly recorded in the ship’s logbook as well as in the security log by the SSO.

Actions to be taken if/when drugs are found on board

  • If suspected illegal substances are detected on board the vessel, it is vital that the ship’s staff stays calm and follows the company’s guidelines closely (reporting procedures under the International Safety Management (ISM) Code/company’s Safety Management System (SMS)) as well as taking immediate steps as set out in the SSP.
  • Suspicious object(s) should not be touched and the area to be cordoned off/restricted by the SSO. Photos can be taken for record-keeping purposes.
  • Immediate steps should be taken with regard to notifying (i) the local authorities through the agents, (ii) the P&I club/local correspondents, (iii) the CSO and (iv) the flag state.
  • The crew should co-operate fully with the local authorities for the duration of the investigation. The master must ensure that a full record of conversations and written exchanges is kept.

Ships trading to and from high-risk areas are recommended to refer to the IMO Revised Guidelines for the Prevention and Suppression of the Smuggling of Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursor Chemicals on Ships Engaged in International Maritime Traffic (Resolution MSC.228(82) and Resolution FAL.9(34)). Similarly, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has published guidelines on recognition and detection of drug trafficking and abuse.


The discovery of illegal narcotics concealed on board can create immense stress on the crewmembers involved, as well as on their families. While the above-mentioned measures may assist in the reinforcement and strengthening of security protocols on board, there will always be cases beyond crew control. The responsibility for combatting drug trafficking must therefore be shared by all the relevant stakeholders, including the terminal and local authorities. This should not however stop members from exercising due diligence themselves and ensuring the effective implementation of the preventative and deterrent steps outlined above.

类别: Loss Prevention

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