Shipping Lines Join with Dutch and Belgians to Fight Drug Smuggling

drugs smuggled on container ships
Shipping lines pledged to work with officials in the Netherlands and Belgium to combat drug smuggling on containerships

Published Feb 21, 2023 6:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

Five leading shipping companies moving containers through the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam signed a pledge to work together with the ports and government officials in a new effort to fight drug smuggling aboard their vessels and through the ports. The declaration on the fight against cross-border organized drug crime seeks to set a global standard in the fight against organized crime by creating better cooperation between the shipping lines and the authorities.

“The record catches in the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam show how gigantic the problem of drug smuggling is in both countries,” said Aukje de Vries, the Dutch Secretary of State for Benefits and Customs, during the signing ceremony for the declaration. “That is why we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in tackling this subversive drug crime,” she said joined by the ministers for Justice and Security, Infrastructure and Water Management, the Belgian Prime Minister, and other officials including the mayors of Rotterdam and Antwerp. 

The officials highlighted that with a throughput of millions of containers, tens of thousands of employees moving through the ports and the cross-border nature of trade makes the maritime sector vulnerable to infiltration and abuse by the drug mafia. It was estimated in 2022, that five percent of the world’s cocaine production moved through the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. 

There have been numerous interventions capturing large quantities of narcotics, but the shipping industry remains a victim of the crimes. Last week, a crew aboard a vessel arriving in Belgium was assaulted by armed individuals believed to be the drug smugglers searching for cocaine aboard the vessel. In December, another vessel was forced to reverse course and anchor offshore after a bomb threat that authorities suspect was linked to cocaine later found hidden on the ship.

They said the problem faced by the Belgian and Dutch ports are mutually connected. While there is ongoing cross-border cooperation the declaration recognizes there are more opportunities for ports to cooperate with law enforcement to correct deficient security as well as opportunities for the shipping companies to work with each other and authorities in the efforts to stop the rampant smuggling.

Executives from MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, and Seatrade Group (a large operator bringing refers into the ports) signed the declaration on behalf of their companies. The carriers are pledging to accelerate the implementation of smart containers. Among the elements they will research are smart container seals and other technologies starting with high-risk cargoes. The digital tools will be designed to track the containers from embarkation to their final destination, registering automatically all movements or efforts to open a container.

In addition to focusing on better protecting containers, the shipping lines will look to limit access to data about the containers. According to the group, the use of digital rights and/or biometrics could be used to securely release or digitally encrypt containers.

The shipping companies also agreed to enforce strict human resource policies including their recruiting processes and background checks. They will cooperate with authorities for screening to identify persons who may have links with criminal organizations. They will also increase their training to help staff better recognize suspicious behavior or suspicious containers.

Finally, the shipping companies are committing to better data sharing both with each other and with the authorities. Law enforcement looks to benefit from the shipping companies’ knowledge about logistical risks in ports all over the world. Law enforcement will also bring to the attention of the International Maritime Organization the need to ensure that source and transit countries adopt the same safety standards for maritime transport.

Signatories to the agreement committed both to a jointly developed work plan and six-month reviews. Annually, they will also conduct a high-level meeting to review progress.