Peruvian police have busted a drug ring that used divers to attach cocaine shipments to the hulls of boats, an innovative and hard to detect smuggling technique that appears to be spreading across the continent.
Twelve people have been captured and face trial for their involvement in the ring, including two Peruvian naval officers. The network trafficked cocaine to Europe from the Peruvian ports of Pisco, south of the capital Lima, and Chimbote, on the country's northern coast. The group used divers to weld sealed packets of the drug into vents in the hulls of ships, America TV reported.
Up to 600 kilograms could be smuggled per ship, without the crew’s knowledge. The technique allowed the traffickers to evade port security checks, and the need to pay off dock workers to collaborate in stowing the drugs on board.
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The ring was headed by Colombians, in collaboration with local Peruvian facilitators. A Colombian specialist known as “Fantasma," or "Ghost," was allegedly responsible for the underwater welding operations, according to America TV.
Similar tactics have been seen in Colombia since at least 2014. There, traffickers use a method known as “parásito” (parasite), in which drugs are sealed into metal cylinders that are welded directly onto the hulls of container vessels.
In June, police in Ecuador also warned that drug traffickers may be targeting the undersides of ships. The announcement followed the arrest of a man swimming through the waters of Guayaquil port, in southern Ecuador, dragging cases containing 138 kilograms of cocaine. He was intercepted 70 meters away from a ship preparing to set sail for Spain. Police believe he intended to hook the drugs to the hull, to be hauled on board by crew members once out at sea.
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Attaching drug shipments to the hulls of boats is a cunning tactic which makes the illicit substances nearly impossible to detect using standard inspection procedures. The proliferation of the technique raises concerns about how prepared the region's police forces are to combat it.
The frontline of defense comes from teams of police divers, specially trained to inspect the undersides of ships. This strategy has resulted in important seizures in Colombia, and has also allowed Peruvian police to intercept a shipment on route from Colombia to Chile.
But the teams work against almost impossible odds. Divers report poor visibility, and traffickers are finding ever more ingenious ways to conceal the subaquatic “parasites." In Colombia, tubes are sometimes painted to resemble part of the ship’s structure. The latest technique seen in Peru, in which criminals insert the drugs into vents, makes the consignments still less visible to divers.
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Diving teams also suffer from lack of resources. In Ecuador, anti-drug police employ only 30 divers across the country. Eight are stationed in Guayaquil, where they carry out an average of four weekly inspections, El Telégrafo reported. This represents only a tiny fraction of the ships that pass through the country’s busiest port.
This is particularly concerning given Ecuador’s increasing importance as a departure point for cocaine shipments. In 2018, Plan V reported that 39 tons of the drug had been seized over the previous two years in Guayaquil alone.