Monday, September 18, 2023
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8-ton cocaine seizure on Danish ship forces scrutiny of shipping security

Dutch authorities examining a Maersk cargo ship found record-breaking amounts of cocaine hidden in banana pallets, highlighting the industry's vulnerability to smuggling.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Pallets of bananas stuffed with cocaine. Employees charged with smuggling. Dockworkers with ties to the Hells Angels.

One of the world's leading shipping lines, Danish container logistics company A. P. Moller Maersk, is struggling like others in the industry to control criminals infiltrating the organization and operating in European and Latin American ports, experts say.

In August, Dutch customs officials announced they had seized eight tons of cocaine on a Maersk container ship during a routine check with sniffer dogs on July 13. The ship came from Ecuador and docked at Rotterdam, where port authorities found the drugs hidden inside pallets with bananas.

According to Dutch customs authorities, the smuggled goods had a value of 600 million euros, about $650 million. The amount found represents 23 times more than all the cocaine seized in Denmark in 2022, according to national police records from the Special Crime Unit, and was a record bust for Holland.   

The police chief of Rotterdam harbor, Jan Janse, told Danish newspaper Finans that Maersk is continuously infiltrated by employees with ties to criminal drug smuggling communities.

“All logistics with containers are about how you can move a container as quickly and cheaply as possible from A to B. Maersk, together with MSC and other shipping companies, are very efficient, but they have forgotten how to make themselves resistant to abuse,” Janse said.

It is extremely complex to detect drug smuggling on large container ships, according to Nelson F. Coelho, an expert in international law and the shipping industry at Denmark's Aalborg University. The busiest ports, where cargo must be handled as fast as possible, present the largest challenge.

“The problem is one of capacity rather than transparency," Coelho said. "In Europe, there are increasingly busy trade routes with South America, where some of the illicit substances originate from. This trend demands greater investment in resources, both human and technical, by customs authorities in the receiving ports,” Coelho said.

For example, Belgian customs authorities at the port of Antwerp can only open and check about one percent of containers, as reported by Brussels-based media company Euractiv. Customs officers are trained to select and profile high-risk cargo and rely on scanners or sniffer dogs to perform inspections. Yet it is difficult to search a whole ship.

“Smugglers are very imaginative," Coelho said. "Little packages containing drugs can be placed with the cargo or in a container’s refrigeration unit from the outside, for example by dock workers. Another way to conceal such packages is by hiding them in the vessel itself, relying on someone who had access to the vessel prior to departure," he added.

Shipping companies like Maersk are typically not held criminally responsible for smuggling unless there is proof of direct involvement from high-ranking employees or systemic use of the line's vessels. In cases in international waters, the primary focus is on individual criminal liability rather than corporate liability, Coelho noted.

However, ship owners must comply with the International Maritime Organization's 2006 guidelines, which include provisions that all crew members undergo training in standards and procedures for profiling, inspecting and reporting illegal cargo to the captain.

While Maersk is unlikely to face prosecution, the incident and others like it have put one of the biggest shipping companies in the world under heavy pressure to reduce smuggling at home and abroad.

In the wake of the Dutch drug bust, six employees at the Maersk-owned harbor APM Terminals Moín in Costa Rica were charged with smuggling cocaine to Europe. At the same time, dock workers handling Maersk ships at the port of Denmark’s second-biggest city, Aarhus, were linked to the local Hells Angels motorcycle gang, often tied to criminal activity.

Maersk's press department has not replied to requests for comment.

Categories / Business, Criminal, International, Securities

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