Maritime security: reading between the lines


Last month, Dutch police – acting on a tip-off by French counter-narcotics authorities – arrested three would-be divers, complete with underwater propulsion vehicles, as they prepared to dislodge a torpedo-shaped metal cylinder from the hull of a tanker recently arrived at the Port of Rotterdam. Inside the receptacle was stashed over 100 kg of cocaine, worth some U.S. $4.5M. The arrested men, reported to have been under police surveillance for over a year, were allegedly part of an international drug smuggling network linked to known French/Corsican organised crime groups. While the operation was heralded as a major coup for European law enforcement in their fight against illegal narcotics, media reports warned of the possibility of similar methods being utilised in the trafficking of drugs to other European hub ports.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that such a narrative undoubtedly provides entertaining journalism, a closer examination of the case’s particulars serves to highlight the endemic misunderstanding which exists in relation to issues of maritime security, both within the shipping industry itself as well as more generally. For while coverage of (and commentary on) the event itself demonstrates the role that international commercial shipping plays in the global criminal marketplace, uninformed journalism also has the effect of contributing to widespread confusion over the nature of threats faced by ship owners, operators and charterers in their day-to-day commercial activities.

While relevant examples abound, we need simply look at one of the first periodicals to carry the ‘narco-torpedo’ story, Britain’s Daily Telegraph. In the much-circulated article1, French authorities close to the case are quoted as describing the attachment of narcotics-filled receptacles to the hulls of commercial shipping vessels as, “worthy of James Bond”, “never before seen in Europe”, a “new method”, and something which “might be used in British ports”. Naturally, these descriptions provide a worrying picture for the European shipping community, which may be left with the impression that they now face a new threat from drug traffickers utilising such a technique.

However, while such worry-inspiring journalism may sell papers, for those with a vested interest in securing their maritime investments, such information is misleading. Despite the fact that this latest interdiction may constitute a ‘first’ in terms of narcotics captured by Dutch law enforcement in this form, the method has been in use for years, if not decades; and while the technique is correctly attributed to major Latin American drug-trafficking organisations, it is by no means a “new method”. Neither would it constitute a greater threat to British ports any more than it would an Irish, German or Italian port.

Traffickers employ a variety of maritime means to achieve their aims including everything from private yachts to general cargo ships. However, in recent years a growing number of major seizures destined for Europe have been made from maritime containers which often arrive in Spain via West Africa, before onward transit to other European hub ports. Since 2003, at least 27 drug seizures have been recorded, including 12 in 2011 measuring nearly six metric tons of cocaine; and although a number of these seizures proved to be linked to the direct owner of the containerised cargo, in many cases the contraband has been added without the knowledge of the owner. The threat, possibly daily, to container operators undertaking business between Europe and West Africa is still much higher than that from illegal attachments to a ship’s hull. But a container interdiction of twenty-times the amount captured in Rotterdam is unlikely to capture headlines in the same way.

Nonetheless, this should not be understood to mean that methods such as those employed in the Rotterdam case do not present a threat to commercial shipping. Rather, it is that the extent of the threat posed by such methods is often overstated while more realistic threats are overlooked. Criminal enterprises are nothing if not flexible, and adapt to circumstances far more fluidly than monolithic government agencies or entire industries have the ability to. Therefore, it behoves private shipping interests to understand the current nature of threats which they face, rather than depend on past examples or sensationalized journalism for relevant information on potential threats. Like criminal and terrorist organisations themselves, the techniques used by such groups are constantly evolving along with responses by law enforcement; and while such techniques are often “recycled” over time, it pays to be aware of current and most common trends.

By way of comparison, although box-cutters were the weapons used by hijackers during the September 11th attacks, it is unlikely that such weapons would pose a significant threat to those aboard an aircraft in this day and age. Improvements in cockpit security, the availability of firearms to pilots within the cockpit and the presence of flight marshals have served to lessen the vulnerability of aircraft to hijack of this type. Today, law enforcement may cite liquid explosives or even the possibility of digital interference with a plane’s navigation system through an ‘Android’ device as more ‘modern’ concerns. Put simply, the goalposts have changed. The same can be said for the exploitation of commercial shipping by criminal enterprises.

In summary, while the media itself should not be blamed for reporting stories that “sell”, wise maritime stakeholders would be well advised to remember that the information provided in such reporting is often misconstrued. Likewise, while law enforcement agencies deserve recognition for their many achievements, they often fail to communicate effectively with private shipping interests, or in other cases, simply lack expertise in maritime criminal matters in order to effectively advise potential victims of such activity. In the end, it is up to those industry stakeholders with a vested interest in the safety and security of their investment, whether ship-owner, cargo-owner or underwriter, to properly analyse and understand the ways in which criminal networks operate and exploit weaknesses in the logistical supply chain. By doing so, they are then able to focus resources more efficiently and effectively on countering the threat.


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

* = required field
We will send you industry articles and news from Gray Page, via email. You can unsubscribe at any time. See our privacy notice.