- It’s getting tougher to move drugs through land ports as President Donald Trump leads a crackdown on the southern US border.
- That’s forced smugglers to start moving drugs through ocean freighters, experts say.
- 2019 has seen multiple record-breaking drug busts on the massive ocean vessels at US ports.
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The past few years have seen an uptick in drug busts on ocean freighters, industry experts said. The Coast Guard said it has seized about 225 tons of cocaine in 2017, up from 145 in 2015. The value of the drugs seized had jumped from $4.3 to $6.6 billion during that time.
“Other venues to transport drugs, like over the US border, are getting tougher and therefore drug dealers have to find alternatives,” Basil Karatzas, chief executive of shipping finance advisory firm Karatzas Marine Advisors, told Business Insider.
Federal agents and the shipping industry at large are directing their attention to ships coming from South America, where many of the drug-laden freighters originate. “There are more drug seizures now on ships than in the past,” a drug-enforcement official told The Wall Street Journal. The official added that “any vessel coming in from South America, can raise a red flag.”
- REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
Maritime transport is the most common venue of international trade, with more than 90% of all goods moved by ship. Typically, those containers aren’t individually inspected as that would slow down commerce. That volume and relative lack of oversight makes it an ideal way to smuggle illegal drugs.
“The container ship market is becoming the way to transport commodities internationally,” Karatzas said. “Given that only a small portion of those containers, are actually inspected, it makes more sense for the drug dealers to try to use the shipping industry as a way to transport across borders and across continents.”
Drug-smuggling through ocean freighters isn’t new, but it is increasing. “With more walled-off sections of the border, we’ve seen drug trafficking organizations literally go underground or offshore,” University of San Diego associate professor David Shirk told CBS San Francisco.
A Brookings report even noted that human-trafficking on ocean freighters is likely if Trump continues his border crackdown.
“Even if the land border were to become much more secure, that would only intensify the trend toward smuggling goods as well as people via boats that sail far to the north, where they land on the California coast,” Brookings Senior Foreign Policy Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote in a Aug. 2017 report.
Record-breaking busts are becoming the norm
In June, federal authorities seized more than $1 billion of cocaine weighing nearly 20 tons at the Port of Philadelphia. Members of the crew admitted that more than a dozen smaller ships piled the freighter with cocaine by coming back and forth from Peru.
It was one of the largest drug busts on American soil ever, and sent shockwaves in the industry after the Feds seized the massive ocean freighter, which was owned by JPMorgan and Chase, under a $40 million surety bond.
Here are the other major seizures that have occurred this year at American seaports:
- At the Port of Baltimore this June, authorities seized $10 million of cocaine. That was the biggest bust in Baltimore in 12 years.
- In March, federal agents found $38 million worth of cocaine at another freighter at the Philadelphia seaport. It was, until the massive seizure in June, the largest bust ever conducted in Philadelphia.
- The Port of New York/Newark saw its largest coke seizure in nearly 25 years in March, as well – finding 3,200 pounds of cocaine worth nearly $77 million.
- In Feb., authorities announced they had seized more than 220 pounds of cocaine at two ships in the Port Hueneme in Ventura County, California. That was the largest bust in 25 years.
- Authorities seized some 3,810 pounds of methamphetamine, 56 pounds of cocaine and nearly 12 pounds of heroin at the the Los Angeles-Long Beach seaport in Feb.
- In Feb., federal officials announced they seized $19 million of cocaine in an ocean freighter at Savannah, Georgia’s seaport.