Colombian cocaine entering Western countries through ghost channels

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Super submarines, Narco-submarines, Maersk, CMA, CGM, Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, El Chapo

Hundreds of tons of cocaine is arriving in a number of Western countries, including Britain, the United States and European Union nations from Colombia being hidden in fishing boats and cargo ships, while in recent years, drugs from Colombia in particular are also smuggled using narco-submarines. Investigative reporters have already revealed information based on leaked documents and official data, from 2016 to April 2022 more than 1,764 cocaine consignments from Colombia were busted by law enforcement agencies. While Belgium and Spain were the most common sites of these seizures, it is leant, Colombian narco-traffickers are mostly using vessels owned by the leading shipping companies such as Maersk and CMA CGM.

A.P. Møller – Mærsk A/S, also known simply as Maersk, is a Danish shipping and logistics company founded in 1904 and CMA CGM is a French shipping and logistics company founded in 1978.

According to OCCRP and NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, an international investigation into modern-day organized crime and those who fight it, in Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, statistics on drug busts are scattershot and hard to find. At least four different agencies keep records of seizures, but they are not easily accessible to the public and often do not overlap.

To understand the risk posed by massive spread of cocaine and other types of drugs, we need to read a statement of NarcoFiles, where is says:

Think of the drug trade, and you might think of rigid hierarchies run by drug lords like Pablo Escobar or Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Today, the reality is far more complex.

With global cocaine demand surging, and markets growing fast in Asia, Africa, and Europe, the days when a single cartel could dominate a whole supply chain are gone.

It is now far more likely for networks of gangs to link up, often on a sort of freelance basis, to move cocaine along different legs of the journey.

According to an OCCRP report, twenty-two of the busts in the leaked documents did not appear in any official database. In dozens of other cases, the leaked documents supplemented official reporting, allowing reporters to uncover information such as where the seizures took place, as well as the export company, customs agent, importer, and shipping firms involved.

For instance, in one May 2016 operation unreported by Colombian agencies, reporters found that 2.3 metric tons of cocaine left the Colombian port of Santa Marta in four containers owned by the Danish shipping company Maersk before being intercepted in Romania.

According to the UN drug agency, while small boats still appear to be the top choice for smugglers, cocaine traffickers’ use of large container vessels is on the rise. And the methods of contamination are becoming increasingly sophisticated, the report notes, creating a major headache for commercial shipping companies.

In another case, the leak allowed reporters to identify the shipping company and exporter for a March 2022 haul busted in Southampton, in the UK The case had been reported by British media but did not show up in any official Colombian databases, even though it had been investigated by prosecutors.

The data still has holes. For instance, in about 13 percent of cases involving large vessels, there was no information about the shipping or container company. In 17 of those cases — four percent — reporters could not see where the drugs were seized. And, of course, the data does not provide insight into the hundreds of tons of cocaine successfully trafficked each year.

In 2023, Financial Times in a report said, an executive at the Danish shipping giant Maersk warned drug gangs were infiltrating entire supply chains, while the international firm MSC saw eight crew members sentenced in the US for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine after one of their ships attempted to sail nearly 20 tons of cocaine through the city of Philadelphia in 2019.

Meanwhile, the OCCRP investigation team found that containers and vessels operated by Maersk, which dominates the Colombian market, were involved in the highest number of drug busts in the dataset, accounting for more than a third of the 374 cases where the shipping or container company could be identified. The infiltration of Maersk vessels was on average in proportion with the company’s share of container traffic in Colombian ports, according to a platform that records the quantity of containers each company manages.

It further said, the second highest share of seizures in the data involved the French group CMA CGM, another of the world’s largest container shipping companies. Between 2016 and 2021, the French company managed an average of 11 percent of Colombia’s container maritime traffic, and accounted for 19 percent of the seizures that took place on large ships.

Henrik Vigh, an anthropology professor and expert on organized crime and drug trafficking at the University of Copenhagen told OCCRP, that larger firms such as these might be appealing to traffickers because they offer a door-to-door service.

“Major shipping companies like Maersk are particularly attractive because they don’t just sail with container ships, but offer to handle the entire logistical chain both on land and at sea. The fewer times the goods have to change hands, the less is the risk of being checked and discovered”.

The narco-submarines

During recent years, use of narco-submarines – also known as clandestine vessels by major drug cartels is on rise.

Contrary to the name, most narco-submarines are not true submarines, as naval expert HI Sutton explains. These vessels, often referred to as Low Profile Vessels (LPVs), are ingeniously designed by Colombian drug traffickers to float close to the water’s surface, evading radar detection.

HI Sutton notes that the narco-submarine phenomenon has reached new heights. The year 2019 saw a significant increase in these vessels, a trend that seems to be continuing in 2020. These purpose-built crafts serve as a primary means for Colombian cartels to smuggle drugs. Their routes vary, stretching from the Pacific towards Central America (en route to the United States), across the Caribbean, and even over the Atlantic to Europe and East Africa.

In 2019 alone, there were over 40 reported incidents involving narco-submarines, compared to just two a decade earlier. This rise is indicative of the enduring efforts of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), as even heightened interdiction rates have not deterred them.

A semi-submersible seized by the Colombian navy in March 2020 measured 15 meters (74-foot) fully operational Kevlar-coated submarine in length and carried 2,600 kilograms of cocaine. This vessel was equipped for extensive round trips, with the capacity to carry substantial cargo.

However, while these vessels are dubbed narco-submarines, experts point out that the real submarines – known as “Super Submarines”- are nearly impossible to detect.

Some of these Fully Submersible Vessels (FSVs) operate with a snorkel tube supplying air to the diesel engine. They come equipped with a conning tower, periscope, and even air conditioning. An example of this is the Kevlar-coated “super sub” discovered near the Ecuador-Colombia border in 2010.

The roots of narco-submarines trace back to at least the 1990s. However, their prevalence has increased over time. Early iterations were so rare that US Drug Enforcement Agencies (DEA) nicknamed them “Bigfoot”. Pablo Escobar and members of the Cali Cartel were among the first to use narco-submarines for transporting cocaine to the United States and other destinations.

Despite the dramatic captures of narco-submarines at sea, most voyages go undetected. Meaning, cocaine and other types of drugs are reaching Western and other nations through ghost channels.

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