Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Mystery of Who is Responsible as Container Ship Impounded after Huge Narcotics Find

Billion Dollar Drugs Smuggling Prompts US Authorities to Hold Vessel and Some Crew
Shipping News Feature
US – News that the American authorities have seized the MSC Gayane which was found to have a consignment of narcotics aboard when she called at the Port of Philadelphia last month, will open a debate regarding the validity of such a move. A judge apparently authorised the seizure on 26 June, a week after the illicit cargo was found within seven shipping containers. The warrant to seize has only now become public knowledge after it was served to the captain on 4 July.

This case is unlike previous seizures in that generally the ship is detained when the contraband is found stowed within the fabric of the vessel itself, funnels being a common hiding place. The fact that this was a case of drug smuggling by inserting goods, quoted in some quarters to exceed $1.3 billion in value, into pre-loaded freight containers, means effectively that it would be the ship owners responsibility, in this case the Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world’s second largest box carrier, to ensure all cargoes are as declared when they arrive at destination port.

For its part MSC says it has a longstanding history of cooperating with US federal law enforcement agencies to help disrupt illegal narcotics trafficking and works closely with Customs & Border Protection (CBP). The company is committed to working with authorities and industry groups worldwide to improve the security of the international supply chain and ensure that illegal practices are dealt with promptly and thoroughly by the relevant authorities.

In its original statement MSC said it is taking this latest matter very seriously and is grateful to the authorities for identifying any suspected abuse of its services. However unfortunately shipping and logistics companies are from time to time affected by trafficking problems.

The raid by the CBP officials revealed nearly 20 tonnes of cocaine hidden (but not very well) in the cargo and followed the vessel making a scheduled port call in Columbia. Upon exercising the warrant six crew members were arrested and five remain in custody. Presumably acting on a tip off, the raid preceded what is the largest vessel seizure in the 230 year history of the US Customs and Border Protection Force.

Now local reports claim that the cocaine was in fact transferred to the ship by several boat trips whilst the ship was travelling between Peru and Colombia. One crew member, reported to be one Fonofaavae Tiasaga, has seemingly turned state’s evidence and described to agents how the drugs were ferried out to the vessel. When the ship was first raided the stream of finds prompted the agents involved to draft in extra help to methodically inspect every single container, before beginning a forensic search of the ship itself.

Able seaman Tiasaga was in custody together with one Ivan Durasevic, the second mate, who, upon being swabbed for traces of cocaine, which allegedly were discovered on his body, apparently described the whole operation, in which he said he had been offered $50,000 to assist in the transfer of drugs from the smaller vessels which were manned by a team of men wearing ski masks.

This of course may all be a fantasy to disguise the real operation. The likelihood of 20 tonnes of cocaine in bags being transferred at sea does stretch the credibility somewhat. Those arrested talk of 30-40 minutes to transfer the narcotics. The haphazard stowage and lack of any reasonable attempt to disguise the drugs does however add some credibility to the story. If transfer at sea was in fact the case, it is hard to imagine anyone on the Gayane being unaware of what was happening.

The offices of both the CBP and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) seem very determined to make this a landmark case in the history of drug smuggling, with a US Attorney William McSwain saying the seizure of a vessel this massive is complicated and unprecedented, but appropriate because the circumstances are also unprecedented, with almost 20 tonnes of cocaine involved. Marlon Miller, Special Agent in Charge of HSI Philadelphia, added:

“The seizure of the MSC Gayane is another significant step toward holding accountable those who perpetuate drug smuggling crimes both here in Philadelphia and around the world. HSI, in collaboration with CBP, the Coast Guard, and our state and local law enforcement partners continue to aggressively work with the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to comprehensively investigate this case and bring to justice those who had roles in this drug smuggling venture.”

MSC issued a further comprehensive statement on 9 July clarifying the position with regard to delayed cargoes to all affected customers. It states:

MSC Gayane was en route to northern Europe at the time of the incident, with calls scheduled at Rotterdam, Antwerp and Le Havre. Aside from a small number of containers, which have been held by the authorities as part of their ongoing investigations, all cargoes on the MSC Gayane have been transhipped to other MSC vessels and sent on to their respective destinations.

”Your local MSC representative will inform you proactively by sending you Notices of Arrival with the updated ETA of your cargo, but please feel free to contact your local MSC office for more information if you wish to. MSC regrets this delay and thanks you for your patience. Please understand however that we must follow the instructions of the authorities when such serious abuses of our services are being investigated, whether in relation to the vessel or its cargo.

”With regard to other MSC services, our NWC-USA-SAWC service is functioning normally and all other MSC services are calling at US ports as usual. You may have seen that MSC’s C-TPAT certification was temporarily suspended following the incident. We are actively seeking to assure the authorities that our certification can be reinstated as soon as possible.

”Notwithstanding this temporary status, MSC continues to comply with all the requirements of the C-TPAT programme and security criteria for ocean carriers including, but not limited to, the screening of customers, maintaining container and vessel security, and the vetting of employees, agents and business partners in accordance with C-TPAT requirements.”

The statement goes on to reiterate how seriously MSC is treating an issue it says impacts the entire shipping and logistics sector. It furthermore remains grateful to the government officials in the US for their proactive work and has offered its continued support, building on a longstanding track record of good cooperation with the authorities.

All talk in the US media is of the ship being retained by the authorities, something MSC will doubtless fight all the way. In the world of ocean shipping changing times demanded more efficient methods and containerisation blossomed instantly, fuelled by demand and the necessity of shipping companies to stay level, if not ahead, of the opposition.

Whilst globally the ocean carriers invested billions to ensure the supply chain kept abreast of the demands of trade, the authorities worldwide operated to a range of standards, inspections of freight still vary wildly from country to country and there is no realistic way for a shipping company to know the precise contents of each 20 or 40 foot box as compared with its manifest. To do so would simply make the cost of shipping anything inordinately expensive.

It is the responsibility of the ship owner to take all practical precautions to ensure goods are as described, however, with FCL freight loaded far beyond the confines of the docks, it is for the shipper to load responsibly and of the authorities to inspect. This is a case which goes right to the heart of the way cargo has been shipped in the past 60 years, formerly, when goods were stowed in a ships hold, every piece was loaded by dockworkers, no matter where in the world they emanated from.

Not only the container lines would argue no doubt that checking every piece of cargo is simply an impossibility. Just last month we were made aware of a case in which drugs were discovered en route from Portugal to the UK stowed within a consignment of furniture. French customs discovered the haul and immediately impounded the vehicle and arrested the driver who spent a week in prison. Customs fines, driver wages, demurrage on the vehicle amounted to thousands of pounds so one can only imagine the bill for seizure of a 120,000 dead weight tonne, near 11,000 TEU capacity container ship.

Technology and the use of other deterrents such as trained sniffer dogs all help in the fight against drugs (and arms) smuggling but at the end of the day a clever and determined minority will always test the systems considering the potentially huge rewards, leaving those such as MSC to pick up the bill when their criminality goes awry.

Photo: Containers from the MSC Gayane show little care to conceal the shipment appears to have been taken, a sign of speed being the most important concern for the criminals at the time perhaps. All of the containers appear to simply have seen the existing cargoes overstowed with the cocaine, and clearly visible to anyone opening the doors of each box.