It was around 5 a.m. when the MSC Gayane cargo freighter docked in the port of Philadelphia on June 17, 2019. Instead of continuing on to its scheduled destination – the Netherlands – it was boarded by federal agents, who spent days using x-rays, sniffer dogs, and fiber optic scopes to inspect the thousands of containers on board. In seven of those, they found nearly 20 tons of cocaine.
It was one of the biggest seizures in US history. But the story of the MSC Gayane says far more about where the ship was headed – Europe – than it does about the United States. It shows how trafficking with containers has reached such levels that traffickers feel confident dispatching multi-ton cocaine shipments worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Europe. But more than that, it shows the constant criminal evolution in what is today the principal form of trafficking to Europe.
The official version of the MSC Gayane seizure is that the traffickers used a method authorities call a “drop off.” Court filings show that two of the six crew members arrested confessed to accepting 50,000 Euros to haul aboard cocaine bricks from 14 smaller boats that approached the cargo ship throughout the night from the Peruvian coast.
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Peruvian anti-narcotics agents told InSight Crime that it is true they are seeing ever more drop offs as trafficking through the country’s main port at Callao has become riskier. However, they do not believe this is what happened with the MSC Gayane.
According to these sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it would have been very difficult for smaller vessels to pull up alongside the Gayane to pass the drugs aboard since its GPS tracking system showed it sailed through Peruvian waters at high speed and without stopping.
Instead, they believe the operation was an example of another trafficking tactic, the adoption of “rutas frias,” or cold routes – ports with little known connection to the drug trade that have minimal security and raise few alarms. At least some of the cocaine, the agents believe, was loaded in Chile, a country rarely mentioned in connection with the transatlantic cocaine trade.
Whatever the case, it makes little difference to the implications of the seizure. Either way, the MSC Gayane haul was a product of the ongoing game of hide and seek between traffickers and law enforcement, in which the traffickers are constantly looking for new methods and routes to stay one step ahead of authorities.
The Move to Containers
In the original cocaine boom of the 1980s, the Colombian cartels favored using light aircraft to reach the United States, hopscotching across the Caribbean. Crossing the Atlantic to reach Europe is an entirely different proposition.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), traffickers sent small quantities of cocaine to Europe via commercial air couriers or “mules.” Larger cocaine shipments, meanwhile, were often dispatched on “motherships,” commonly fishing vessels that were met on the high seas by go-fast boats, which would bring the drugs to shore – a technique perfected by Galician smugglers.
Over the last decade, container shipping has become by far the most common form of trafficking into Europe. Every year, 750 million containers are shipped around the globe, but less than two percent of these are inspected. This has provided traffickers with the perfect opportunity to reach global markets. The challenge is camouflaging large consignments of cocaine to minimize the risk of seizure while maximizing profits.
Container shipping was used to move cocaine at least as far back as the 1990s when the approach was pioneered by the Italian mafia. But seizure figures illustrate a dramatic swing to containers in the mid to late 2000s, which appeared to catch authorities unawares.
European cocaine seizures increased rapidly between 1998 and 2006, from 32 tons to 121 tons. This was followed by a sudden decline from 2006 to 2009 – from 121 tons to 53 tons – even as other indicators like use rates, purity levels, and street prices remained stable or increased, according to UNODC data. The figures suggest cocaine continued to flow uninterrupted – right under the authorities’ noses.
By the time seizure rates began to rise again, containers were the principal trafficking method detected. The 2016 EU Drug Markets report stated that, while in 2006 containers accounted for 10 percent of maritime seizures, by 2012 and 2013 that had increased to 75 percent.
The switch to containers could have been a response to security measures, or simply because traffickers were growing more aware of the advantages.
"Finding drugs in containers is like finding a needle in a haystack,” Damián Zaitch, a University of Utrecht professor and expert on organized crime, told InSight Crime. “Criminal networks have taken advantage of this security gap and are likely to continue doing so.”
It also could be a sign of the fact that the volume of cocaine needed to feed the booming European market required the type of bulk transport capabilities offered by containers.
“When Europe became more important in the world market, containers became an advantage,” said Zaitch. “There was a reorganization of the cocaine business and it became more international.”
Switching Ports and Departure Points
When authorities began to understand the threat posed by container trafficking, they paid more attention to which shipping lines from which countries were most commonly used for cocaine shipments. Traffickers responded by fanning out across the region in search of new ports that raised fewer suspicions.
Traditional hotspots, such as the Colombian ports of Turbo, Santa Marta, Buenaventura and Cartagena, as well as Callao in Peru, offer proximity to production zones, active shipping lines to Europe, and highly sophisticated, long-standing criminal networks and infrastructure. However, they are now routinely red-flagged by European authorities and undergo more advanced security protocols.
To combat the growing risk of interdiction, traffickers migrated to other ports around the region, heading to countries such as Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and above all, Brazil.
Brazil’s direct connections with production zones in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia on one side, and numerous Atlantic coast container ports on the other, made it an enticing prospect for traffickers seeking new routes to Europe. Add to this a powerful and rapidly evolving organized crime landscape, and suddenly you have the principal cocaine bridge to Europe.
First, the port of Santos became a hotspot, then others such as Paranaguá and Itajaí followed. Seizures, according to Brazilian Customs data, soared from 4.5 tons in 2010 to 66 tons in 2019.
This migration continues today, with evidence suggesting traffickers are turning to ports with a relatively clean business history that are ill-prepared to stem the flow of cocaine, such as in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.
Ever-changing Modus Operandi
The same pattern can be seen in modus operandi: when authorities implemented security measures, traffickers responded by changing and improving their trafficking techniques. When authorities adapted, traffickers again came up with new alternatives.
Early proponents of container trafficking favored a strategy authorities call “within the load,” where cocaine is camouflaged in everyday exports.
The within the load technique requires traffickers to run front companies, which they either set up themselves or buy so they can be the owners of businesses with a long history of clean exports.
They then hide the cocaine in their ostensibly legal exports. Mostly, this involves simply stuffing bricks of cocaine into boxes of cargo, but in other cases traffickers have used everything from hollowed out pineapples to barrels of hazardous chemicals, and even chemically transformed the cocaine to disguise it as products like pet food or fertilizer.
In addition, within the load allows traffickers to have direct control over the shipment. However, since authorities began investigating and profiling export companies looking for suspicious patterns, the risk of interdiction has risen.
This drove a shift to the rip-on/rip-off method, where traffickers avoid profiling by breaking open containers of legitimate exports to ship the drugs, then use cloned customs seals to conceal the tampering. Initially, rip on/rip off was favored by smaller traffickers sending tens of kilograms. But as it has grown in popularity, the shipments have grown in size, with multi-ton hauls now commonplace.
In most cases, the containers are contaminated as they are waiting to be loaded, meaning traffickers require access to the port areas. While there has been at least one case of so-called “ninjas” slipping into ports hidden in secret compartments in trucks, it is far easier to recruit port workers. In Peru, for example, the Barrio King gang’s violent control of stevedore crews allowed it to enforce a near monopoly on trafficking through the port of Callao.
However, in other cases, traffickers never enter the port, such as in Costa Rica, where traffickers recruit corrupt drivers, transport companies, and container yard workers to load drugs into containers as they travel the long road between the agricultural zone of San Carlos and the port of Limón.
Sources in several countries also say that traffickers are increasingly looking to avoid the risks from profiling by hiding drugs in the structure of the container itself. Traffickers stuff bricks of cocaine into cavities in the walls, ceilings, floors, and doors, or in the insulation or cooling equipment of refrigerated containers – known as “reefers.”
Using the container structures lowers the risks of authorities detecting fake customs seals, but it requires complicity from people inside shipping companies or container yards. Some traffickers have worked around this by mounting front companies to tamper with the containers, such as in Costa Rica, where several sources described how traffickers set up a container maintenance company to mask their activities.
Authorities responded to the rise in these trafficking methods with the use of scanners in ports, which are deployed both at random and as a result of risk profiling. However, in some locations, such as the port of Santos in Brazil, traffickers have responded by contaminating containers that have already been inspected – cracking them open at the last possible moment before loading.
As US prosecutors believe took place with the MSC Gayane shipment, another response to increased scanning and other security measures is to use drop offs, or contaminating the containers at sea after the ship has left the port.
This modus operandi usually depends on extensive corruption among the crew. But authorities in Guayaquil, Ecuador, also report armed bands are now boarding ships and forcing crews to take loads at gunpoint.
Drop offs are now not only happening as ships set sail, but also as they pass through the waters of other nations, with sources reporting the state of Falcón in Venezuela as a particular hotspot.
Authorities are tackling this trafficking method using the vessel’s GPS device, which gives information on the speed of the ship. If a ship suddenly slows down or stops, an alarm sounds.
Traffickers, though, are already exploring new options. Anti-narcotics and ports officials are talking of the “switch” technique, which consists of swapping drugs to “cold” or non-flagged containers in transit. This risk is especially high in Panama, port officials explained to InSight Crime, as drugs can be switched as they move by rail between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
The Future of the Container Battle
While drug traffickers may have enjoyed a head start in container smuggling, it is now an anti-narcotics priority for authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Some in both the public and private sectors are betting on technology for solutions: smart containers, which collect and transmit data on the container’s geolocation, temperature fluctuations, and any other signs of tampering; or electronic customs seals, which send real-time information on the container movements.
However, these technologies are no silver bullet. A port official in Panama, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said they are prohibitively expensive and complicated to install. They also can lose signal at sea, creating a window of opportunity for traffickers to contaminate containers.
“These are great ideas, but they are also a utopia,” he said.
More grounded solutions can be found in multinational cooperation and initiatives such as the Container Control Programme (CCP), a joint initiative of the UNODC and the World Customs Organization (WCO). The program has increased security capacity and built international cooperation networks in both Latin American and European ports, and has directly contributed to an increase in seizures as well as operations that took down important traffickers.
However, despite these efforts, it is unlikely authorities will ever be able to shut down container trafficking. It is impossible to inspect even a fraction of the hundreds of millions of containers that are shipped worldwide. And even if they manage to restrict it enough to make traffickers consider turning elsewhere, traffickers have no shortage of other options.
Sailing vessels are becoming more accessible in price and easier to pilot, and are now dispatched from Brazil and Suriname, as well as Venezuela and the Caribbean. Private charter flights loaded with hundreds of kilograms have also been sent from Colombia and Uruguay to the UK, France and Switzerland. And the last two years have seen the first seizures in Europe of semi-submersibles built to ship cocaine.
Whether it is in container trafficking or not, the game of cocaine hide and seek has anti-narcotics authorities, for now, condemned to playing catch up.
The War for Ports
The importance of containers has changed the face of cocaine trafficking in Latin America. It has turned port cities with little history of organized crime into sought after criminal real estate, sparking struggles for domination and the strengthening of local criminal syndicates.
Because of trafficking through ports, street gangs such as Panama’s “Calor Calor” and “Baghdad” have become major criminal players, and Brazil’s already formidable prison gangs, above all the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), have become large-scale traffickers whose leaders broker transnational deals. It has also given rise to a new generation of port logistics specialists, who traffickers contract to organize cocaine dispatches. Such specialists operate camouflaged among local elites in countries like Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica.
The collateral damage of these new criminal dynamics has been high. Panama has seen murder rates reach record highs in recent years, fueled in no small part by gang wars for control of the ports of Panama City and Colón. In Callao, Peru, Barrio King’s campaign to establish a monopoly on trafficking through the port led not only to inter-gang violence, but also a brutal purge of stevedores that resisted their control. And these are far from isolated examples.
European port cities have also seen their share of violence, although on a smaller scale. Over the past two years, the two main European ports used for cocaine trafficking, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium, have seen gangland killings, bombings, and grenade attacks connected to the cocaine trade.
However, violence and intimidation are clumsy tools in Europe. They attract too much attention and are bad for business. Even in Latin America, which has suffered more drug violence than any other part of the world, traffickers are beginning to realize this.
Container trafficking in both Europe and the Americas relies far more on corruption than violence. Without access to corrupt port workers and officials, customs agents, police, ship crews and others, it would be impossible. And this is a broader reflection of the cocaine trafficking world today, which increasingly favors plata – silver – over plomo – lead.
*Investigation for this article was conducted by James Bargent, Douwe den Held and Owen Boed.