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Risks Associated with Drug Trafficking & Countermeasures - Merchant ships guideline

Drug smuggling constitutes a grave crime almost anywhere in the world. Affected parties can expect extensive investigations, interrogation, detention, and possibly criminal prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment. Moreover, assets may be seized as security for hefty fines and penalties and ultimately confiscated and sold. The mere presence of drugs onboard a vessel has in the great majority of cases resulted in the detention of the vessel and crew and charges being brought against individual crewmembers.

Recently there has been an increase in the number of reported drug detection incidents involving merchant ships calling at ports in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as the Caribbean. It is suspected that the drugs were bound for the US, Europe and Russia.

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Measures to prevent drug smuggling

The general aim in all instances is to prevent the illegal substances from being hidden inside cavities in the vessel's rudder trunk or attached to external parts of the vessel's hull in the first place. The following are some general guidelines for precautionary measures to be taken before entry into port, while in port and after departure.

Before entry into a port

Install physical barriers in the rudder trunk or other cavities in the hull to deter their use to hide drugs. Crew going ashore should be informed of the risk that possible drug traffickers may seek to befriend them in order to achieve their co-operation to smuggle drugs. The crew must understand that this could be potentially dangerous for themselves, their families, fellow crewmembers, etc. Moreover, local authorities are likely to act forcefully against any crewmember that is considered to be associated with drug traffickers.

Warning posters describing the risks involved in the carriage of drugs should be displayed at the point of the entry/exit to the vessel and within the accommodation areas.

The ship should keep accurate records of all activities observed and the actions taken by local authorities, stevedores and other shore-based personnel and crew before entry into port, during the stay and immediately after departure.

In port or at anchor

The Master and crew must take all possible precautions to limit access to the vessel and monitor the surrounding area adjacent to the vessel while in port. Individuals who have no legal requirement for being on board must not be allowed onboard. The crew should keep a log at the point of entry/exit, and the Master and SSO should be informed if the watch is uncertain as to whether an individual has legitimate reasons to be onboard.

A permanent watchman should be present in areas where stevedores or repair technicians work onboard the ship. During hours of darkness, all areas should be well-lit to facilitate visual monitoring of activities. Any suspicious activities conducted by third parties on board should be reported to the Master/SSO.

Attention should be paid to small boats approaching the ship and any suspicious activity in the vicinity of the ship, which may warrant further investigation. The use of a searchlight during the hours of darkness should be considered. The crew should perform regular shipboard inspections throughout the port call.

In ports particularly prone to drug smuggling, it should be considered to employ additional security guards from an approved supplier. When broken/missing seals for compartments, lockers, containers, etc., are discovered, an investigation should be conducted, and if nothing is found, the seals should be replaced by the crew. A record should be made in the logbook together with a note of the outcome of the investigation/search and relevant seal numbers.

Once cargo operations are completed, the crew should perform a full search of the vessel. In addition to looking for illegal substances, the crew should be on the lookout for stowaways. If there are any suspicions that drugs may have been placed on board, the Master should request a comprehensive vessel inspection, including inspection of the vessel's hull below the waterline, before departure. The most common measure is the anti-smuggling sub-aquatic survey (ROV) to deter, prevent, and ascertain that no illegal substances are attached to the vessel below her waterline.

After departure

Once the vessel has sailed, and outbound pilot has disembarked, a thorough search of all compartments should be conducted, and the results recorded in the logbook.

Action to be taken if drugs are found onboard

If drugs are found on board, the Master/SSO should immediately take steps as set out in the vessel's Emergency Contingency Plan (as per the ISM Code) and the Ship's Security Plan (as per the ISPS Code). One of which should include steps to be taken concerning notification to the local authorities. The following general guidelines can also be given:

1.The drugs must not be touched.
2. Photograph or video the area of the ship where the drugs were found, but leave it untouched and seal it off to prevent any unauthorized access.
3. Inform the P&I insurer, the local P&I correspondent, the Shipowner/Operator, and the Flag Administration.

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Maritime security concerns
Maritime security issues affect the way ship owners, charterers, cargo interests, ports and terminals, and their insurers do business. There is the added expense to deal with. There has also been an increase in the number of international conventions and domestic legislation geared towards furthering maritime security.

How maritime law works in the United States?
Maritime law used to apply only to American waters within the ebb and flow of the tide. However, it now covers any waters navigable within the United States for interstate or foreign commerce. Admiralty jurisdiction also includes some maritime matters not involving interstate commerce, for example, recreational boating.

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