Shipping containers and reefers: risk of drug smuggling escalates during Covid-19 pandemic

Illicit drugs make their way to European ports getting past security checks.

While the effects that the global pandemic has thrust upon shipping companies are slowly releasing their grip on the international trade supply chain, another issue has been arising in many ports worldwide that drew attention to security matters when it comes to drug smuggling. Although commercial carriers are not new to criminal organizations trafficking illicit drugs through liner operators, the number of shipping containers that have been found to hide narcotic substances has sky-rocketed since the pandemic started.

With a structure that provides endless opportunities for hiding illicit goods, maritime containers are bound to be exploited by all sorts of black-market activity.
Either counterfeit goods or drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and amphetamine, find their way through international logistics networks to reach key entry hubs all around Europe, where the absence of border checks among member states makes it hard to track down contraband containers.

When Covid-19 brought supply chains to an abrupt halt, the number of containers moved by train or truck was drastically reduced. As a result of this, drug smuggling took advantage of the huge boxships that kept on moving to sustain a system designed for just-in-time delivery, far from a perfectly oiled mechanism that could allow deeper checks without slowing down commercial shipping operations.

The current situation puts commercial carriers at great risk, resulting in fines arising out of smuggling and huge cargo losses and seizures. Even though companies do not willingly take part in trafficking affairs, unauthorized packages can be found concealed inside reefer containers’ refrigerator units and within the structure of the shipping container itself, which is then marked as checked with fake seals by crew members somehow involved in criminal organizations.

What we can predict to happen next is that however improving the means and strategies of illicit traffic, law enforcement and shipping companies will take action to enhance security measures despite the unavoidable drawbacks it will have on supply chains. At the same time, the Container Control Programme developed by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes) and the World Customs Organization (WCO), will support international Governments to create and improve enforcement structures in seaports that handle as much as 10 million containers a year. (Source: UNODC – Container Control)


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