Hamburg Pleads With Port Workers to Say No to Drug Smugglers

Bags containing cocaine in a containerized shipment of tobacco, 2019 (Hauptzollamt Hamburg)

Published Apr 29, 2024 7:00 PM by The Maritime Executive


Hamburg's port is one of the main gateways for cocaine smuggling into Europe, a prized market for cartels because of the popularity of the drug and the high price it fetches. While Hamburg is not as busy as Rotterdam or Antwerp, it is still a regional hub, and local authorities are trying to crack down on the illicit trade - in part, by appealing to port employees to stay out of the smuggling industry. 

"Stay away from this type of crime, give information if you notice something, it protects yourself, it protects our port and it protects our urban society," Hamburg mayor Peter Tschentscher warned port personnel in comments to local media on Monday. 

Inside collaborators (or "internal harbor criminals") are essential to the smooth functioning of a narcotics smuggling network. Port employees can help gang members gain unauthorized access to storage yards; access yard location databases to help retrieve drugs from "dirty" containers; and tip off criminals to signs of law enforcement activity. Gangs use a variety of methods to gain leverage over port staff, including extortion, threats of violence and generous bribe offers for compliance. 

"If you get involved in it, you might find that the whole family gets involved," Tschentscher warned. 

The cautionary message is part of a broader EU-backed push to counter smuggling networks in Northern Europe, called the INOK project ("Infiltration of North Sea Ports by Organised Crime"). In addition to the awareness campaign, INOK aims to investigate and prosecute corrupt port employees; protect innocent employees from ever being contacted by cartel members; and strengthen ties with maritime companies, who can help to quickly spot and close vulnerabilities on the waterfront. 

The scale of the problem is significant. In Antwerp, authorities seized a record 116 tonnes of cocaine in 2023. Germany's federal police force is working with the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp to ensure that when there is a crackdown in these key ports, the trade does not simply spill over into Port of Hamburg. (Hamburg already has plenty to contend with: officials there seized 35 tonnes last year). 

By weight, cocaine is worth more than platinum when delivered to the EU. The median wholesale price per kilo on the European market is about $37,000, or $37 per gram. When reduced in purity and sold to the end user, the price rises to an average of about $75 per gram - about the same as the price of pure gold. At the point of origin in Colombia, the same drug is worth $2-3,000 per kilo wholesale ($2-3 per gram), so the markup is more than an order of magnitude. There are few other industries with such a substantial opportunity for profit, even after accounting for product losses due to the occasional intercept and seizure.