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Distinguishing Rice From Wrong: Lessons From a Hamburg Cocaine Bust

cma cgm hamburg
Container ships at the Port of Hamburg (File image, copyright: HHM / Peter Glaubitt)

By CIMSEC 02-16-2021 04:50:00

[By Dr. Ian Ralby]

In the summer of 2020, the Port of Hamburg, Germany, had one of the largest drug busts in its history. On June 26, a container arrived in Hamburg carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine worth roughly $353 million. German authorities discovered the large quantity of trafficked narcotics hidden in sacks of rice destined for Poland. Almost every media report to date has talked about the fact that the vessel that carried these drugs into Hamburg was the Malta-flagged, French-owned CMA CGM Jean Gabriel, and almost every media report to date has noted that the sacks of rice containing the cocaine came from Guyana. Oddly, however, the Jean Gabriel had not been to Guyana in 2020. In fact, since its construction in 2017, it has never been to Guyana. Furthermore, the vessel was already on another voyage to South America by the time the drugs were discovered in Hamburg. This begs the question: what is going on here? 

The short answer is: though the media reports did not clarify this, the container of Guyanese rice was actually transshipped in the Dominican Republic, where it embarked the Jean Gabriel before ending up in Germany, where it was being stored for a time before heading to Poland. A closer look at this case and the confused reporting on it shines a light on three key takeaways that will be important for addressing new trends in drug trafficking. 

The Vessel

Though the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel arrived in Hamburg on June 26, the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt broke the story of the bust on August 10. In the days following, many other papers and commentators retold what happened, the most in-depth reporting indicating that the rice came from the Berbice Mill in Guyana, where it left port on May 26. None of the initial stories, however, particularly in the international media, clarified that Jean Gabriel was not the vessel that had picked up the rice from Guyana. Indeed, the media largely made it seem that Jean Gabriel had, perhaps knowingly, taken the drugs from Guyana to Hamburg, and a number misreported that the drugs were found on the ship itself.

Drug trafficking in containerized cargo has increased in recent years. A third of all drug trafficking is now estimated to be transported in this fashion, but that comes with a difficult question. Given the volume of the cargo being moved – 90 percent of world trade moves by sea – do the ships have any awareness they are carrying drugs? In many cases the answer has been “no,” as the cargo was loaded and unloaded like any legitimate container. This brings up the first key takeaway: As containerized drug trafficking increases, reporting on it needs to be careful not to accuse or make false and misleading claims about vessels and shipping lines.  Confused reporting can inadvertently cast aspersions on innocent parties. To date, there has been no indication that the Jean Gabriel, its crew, or CMA CGM was involved in this drug trafficking enterprise – the cartel simply took advantage of the infrastructure of global maritime commerce.

The Container

The question remains how the problematic container got on board. The answer can be found in the local coverage of the matter. Stabroek News, a Guyanese paper reporting on the response of the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) to the drug bust, went into depth on how the rice got from the Berbice Mill to the point when it left Guyana. The rice came to the port in several different trucks and was loaded into containers for a consignment to FHU Konpack, a Polish import company. GRDB claims to have followed standard operating procedures in checking the quality of the rice at the mill and then fumigating it at the port. It is not clearly stated, but it seems that there were multiple containers of rice, though the allegation is only one of them contained cocaine. As the report indicates, the containers were sealed and documented on May 21 and 22. They were then loaded onto the MV Asiatic Wind, a Singapore-flagged, German-owned vessel that does mostly intra-Caribbean container transfers. 

Given that we also know the port calls for the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel [via Windward AIS], we can confirm the Stabroek News report that the container disembarked the Asiatic Wind for transshipment in the Port of Caucedo, Dominican Republic, on June 7. That report would also seem accurate, suggesting that the container was loaded onboard the Jean Gabriel on June 13 and set sail that same day for Europe. Once unloaded in Hamburg on June 27, it was stored for onward transshipment to Poland. According to the reports, an intelligence tip alerted German authorities to the possible presence of drugs. Otherwise, the container might have completed its journey without being interdicted. This brings us to the second takeaway from this case: It may be more important to watch the movement of containers than it is to watch the movement of vessels when tracking drug shipments, particularly as container transshipment creates confusion as to the actors who may be involved in the journey of the drugs. 

The news stories around this case, and even some criminology publications, all focused on the vessel that brought the container to Hamburg. The real story is the voyage of the container, as that is how we can determine how the drugs actually got from wherever they originated to Germany. Virtually every international media report mentioned Jean Gabriel. Only the local reports mentioned the MV Asiatic Wind. Even then, there is nothing conclusive to indicate any connection between the vessel and the drug operation, though an important concern is raised below about part of the latter vessel’s voyage. As drug cartels use containerization to move an increasing volume of narcotics, they cannot be allowed to take advantage of general sea blindness and confusion about maritime commerce to obscure their activities. 

Based on the publicly available information, it is impossible in this particular case to conclusively determine where the drugs entered the container. If the container was unsealed and resealed in the process of moving from Guyana to Hamburg – a process known as “rip-on, rip-off,” it would have required a sophisticated and likely quite noticeable operation, most likely in the Port of Caucedo. The container’s seal would have to be removed, the container opened and unpacked, the drugs inserted into the rice sacks, the container repacked, and a fraudulent seal fitted to avoid detection. There is also, as has been the case in other major busts, the possibility that the drugs were embarked and loaded while the vessel was at sea. The vessel tracks of the Jean Gabriel do not indicate any suspicious activity that could account for that. The only feature that Windward shows that could, in other circumstances, be considered suspicious is a change in draft from 11.7 meters to 12.1 meters that occurs between London and Hamburg. There is no anomalous activity to suggest the vessel slowed to pick up anything at sea, so this is almost certainly caused by the change in buoyancy from salt water to fresh water. Based on the movements of the vessel, therefore, it seems unlikely that the Jean Gabriel was engaged in any untoward activity that would indicate involvement in drug trafficking. 

The Asiatic Wind does have one anomaly, however, that bears noting. Before entering the Port of Kingston, the Asiatic Wind, on June 3, inside Jamaica’s territorial sea, made a sharp 90-degree turn and went dark for 12 hours and 36 minutes. This means the vessel was not transmitting on its Automated Information Systems (AIS) during that time, a violation of law unless documented in the master’s log book, and often an indicator – though inconclusive – of suspicious activity. Given the distance traveled from when the vessel went dark to where it reappeared, Windward calculates that 11 hours and 36 minutes cannot be accounted for during that dark period. While it is unclear what happened in that interval, if investigators are unable to find a land- or port-based point of embarkation for the drugs, embarkment at sea is another possibility that cannot be ruled out without further examination. 

Returning to the takeaway about following the container, accurately revealing the story of what happened is not about ignoring the vessels, but about watching their movements in relation to the container at issue. Ultimately, the tip to German authorities, together with the fact that the 1,277 packages of cocaine found in this container were stamped with different symbols, including a cat’s face, the Gallic rooster, and the Ampelmännchen – a red and green German pedestrian crossing symbol – should give ample indications to investigators as to potential sources, traffickers, and buyers. In the process, the full journey needs to be examined, and even this anomaly in Jamaica should be reviewed. And finally, the rice itself may be an important piece of the puzzle. 

The Rice

Using sacks of rice to convey and conceal drug shipments has become an increasingly common phenomenon in the illicit narcotics space. Incidents include the August 2014 discovery of 100 kilograms of ketamine in a container of rice entering Canada from India, the February 2018 interdiction of the MV Sunrise Glory in Indonesia with a ton of crystal methamphetamine in rice sacks, and the September 2020 interdiction of the Maersk Sembawang in the UK with a rice shipment containing over $160 million in heroin. 

In 2015, an Argentine case even demonstrated the efforts of drug cartels to fuse the cocaine with the rice to make it harder to detect. Just last year, Suriname – Guyana’s neighbor to the east – saw one of its biggest drug busts in history. A consignment of rice in the Jules Sedney Port in Paramaribo was discovered to have 2,300 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside it, divided among eight containers that were to be loaded on a ship and taken via Guadeloupe to mainland France. The rice merchant whose shipment it was – a 30 year old father of two girls – was arrested on January 8, 2019, and released shortly thereafter. A week later, however, he was found dead on a popular beach in Guyana, murdered by a gunshot to the forehead. 

Even with this catalogue of cases from other parts of the world, involving a variety of drugs, the nexus between rice and cocaine may be most acute in Guyana. On August 13, 2013, officials in the Dominican Republic found 70 kilograms of cocaine in a Guyanese rice shipment. On August 28, 2017, Jamaican officials found 78 parcels of cocaine worth nearly $700,000 in a Guyanese rice shipment. On October 30, 2017, Guyana officials found 67 kilograms of cocaine in a Guyanese rice shipment that was destined for Belgium, discovering it before it left their own port. These are just some of the more high-profile cases. 

This frequency of cocaine busts in rice shipments runs in parallel to a broader trend around the world where transnational crime groups and terrorist organizations are turning to benign, ubiquitous goods for income streams. Charcoal, fuel, honey, sugar, and fish are all being used by criminal groups to create income for nefarious operations. But they are also using these benign goods as direct cover for those operations. In the case of the rice, the connection between the rice producer and the cartels should be monitored, as the cartels may seek to buy up and directly own the supply chain, rather than simply control it through duress, manipulation, or payout. The death of the Suriname rice merchant in Guyana should be an indication of how serious this matter is. This brings us to the final takeaway of the incident: While the focus of the interdiction is on the cocaine and its supply chain, a wider law enforcement effort is needed to examine the relationship between benign goods and illicit activities to help ensure that, while drug cartels may use goods like rice to obscure cocaine shipments, they do not end up controlling both the legitimate and illegitimate markets at the same time. 

By creating invisible supply chains of illicit goods amid  supply chains of legitimate goods, cartels can make law enforcement detection and interdiction even more difficult. 

Conclusion

Even beyond the confused reporting and the various transportation dynamics reviewed, there is an overarching indication of criminal mindsets that should be considered extremely concerning when reviewing this case. Criminality is a risk-reward calculus. When the risk is low and reward is high, criminals are in their sweet spot of pursuing profit. The hope is that the interdiction of a shipment serves as a meaningful disruption of the illicit supply chain and deters criminality through a change in the risk-reward calculus. If Guyanese rice has been interdicted numerous times in the past with cocaine, yet it is still being used as a means of transporting cocaine, what does that say about how often it is successful? 

The fact that it is still being used to obscure such large quantities of drugs suggests that in this instance, the risk-reward calculus, or more accurately, the rice-reward calculus, remains in favor of the criminals. Either the cartels are futilely making repeat attempts and hoping for a different result, or law enforcement is blind to the majority of what is moving. Businesses that don’t maintain a bottom line do not survive, so if the drug cartels are still using this tactic after a decade of sporadic interdictions, we have to assume that the majority of the time the criminals are successful.

The November 4, 2020 bust of 11.5 tons of cocaine in a scrap metal shipment that went from Guyana to Belgium further reveals the extent to which cartels feel that stashing extremely large quantities of drugs amid benign cargoes serves their interests. This is a sobering conclusion and should inspire a redoubling of efforts to rethink and reimagine how we approach countering the movement of narcotics and illicit substances. 

Dr. Ian Ralby is a recognized expert in maritime law and security and serves as CEO of I.R. Consilium. He has worked on maritime security issues around the world, and has spent considerable time focused on and was previously based in the Caribbean. He spent four years as Adjunct Professor of Maritime Law and Security at the United States Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and three years as a Maritime Crime Expert for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I.R. Consilium is a family firm that specializes in maritime and resource security and focuses on problem-solving around the world.

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. The original may be found here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.