Skuld updates on Colombia drug smuggling

Ruby Hassan, Skuld Assistant Vice President, Claims, has noted in an article that, while Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia continued to be the world’s top three producers of cocaine, the published United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) report – World Drug Report 2021 – and the 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report both revealed that Colombia was the largest producer and supplied the most cocaine to North America and Europe by sea transport.

Colombia currently accounted for two thirds of the global area under coca bush cultivation and cocaine production, posing a problem for shipowners and operators of vessels departing from Colombian ports.

In 2021, the Colombian Navy broke its historical record of drug seizures, with 403 tons of illicit substances confiscated.

Hassan said that liquid cocaine was becoming a rising trend in Colombia. As port controls had become stricter, with ever more significant quantities of cocaine being seized in Latin America and Europe, criminal networks needed to innovate. A report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) stated that liquid cocaine was almost imperceptible by the scanners currently installed in ports or airports.

On February 5th 2022 Colombian police seized around 3.5 tons of liquid cocaine at the northern port of Cartagena. This was the fifth seizure of liquid cocaine since November 2021 and came just one week after the discovery of nearly 20,000 coconuts filled with liquid cocaine, also found in the port of Cartagena, and bound for Italy.

In the latest seizure the cocaine had been dissolved and mixed in two shipments, one of organic fertilizer and the other of molasses extracted from sugar cane. Both shipments came from Urabá, a region in north-western Colombia. The shipments were destined for the ports of Valencia, Spain, and Veracruz, Mexico.

The Rip-On/Rip-Off Method

Hassan noted that a method which had grown in popularity was the rip-on/rip-off method, where traffickers avoid profiling by breaking open containers of legitimate exports to ship the drugs, then using cloned customs seals to conceal the tampering.

In most cases the containers are contaminated as they are waiting to be loaded, meaning traffickers require access to the port areas. This is achieved usually through the recruitment of corrupt drivers, transport companies, stevedores, and container yard workers, to load drugs into containers.

Traffickers also continued to avoid the risks from profiling by hiding drugs in the structure of the container itself – bricks of cocaine were stuffed into cavities in the walls, ceilings, floors, and doors, or in the insulation or cooling equipment of refrigerated containers.

Authorities had been responding to the rise in these trafficking methods with the use of scanners in ports, which were deployed both at random through risk profiling. Some traffickers had reacted by contaminating containers that had already been inspected and cracking them open at the last possible moment before loading.

Another counterploy used by the traffickers was to use “drop offs”, or contaminating the containers at sea after the ship has left the port. This modus operandi usually depended on extensive corruption among the crew, but had also involved armed gangs boarding ships and forcing crews to take loads at gunpoint.

Hassan said that drop offs were now not only happening as ships sailed en route, but also as they passed through the waters of other nations, with sources reporting the state of Falcón in Venezuela as a particular hotspot.

Authorities were tackling this trafficking method by using the ship’s GPS and checking the vessel’s speed. If a ship suddenly slows down or stops, an alarm sounds.

Traffickers were reported to be exploring new options such as the “switch” technique, which consists of swapping drugs to “cold” or non-flagged containers in transit—update/