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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Organised Crime and Port Security

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Organised Crime and Port Security

12 August, 2019

On the 8th of July 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized nearly 20 tons of cocaine on a cargo ship stopped in the Port of Philadelphia. Port seizures just like this, especially of cocaine, regularly make news all over the world. What distinguished this seizure is the fact the narcotics had an estimate value of $1.3 billion in what was dubbed as the largest cocaine haul in American history. From Brazil to Italy, and from Ecuador to the UK, ports remain one of the main ways in which narcotics enter and transit territories all over the world.

To tackle this, over the past couple of decades, the international community has approved several schemes to facilitate international cooperation on cargo checks and improve knowledge of the port industry’s special needs, while also increasing maritime security and policing on the waterfront.

These needs and the landscape of maritime security have drastically changed over time, especially after the events of 9/11. Accordingly, in 2002, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) approved the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, added to the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Convention of 1974. The ISPS provides guidance on how ports should streamline their security processes and harmonise maritime security provisions across states. More recent measures include the introduction of the ‘Container Control Program’ (CCP), a joint venture between the World Customs Organization and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), that assists states in fighting illegal cross-border trafficking conducted via maritime routes.

Protecting marine borders is a crucial aspect of any strategic effort to secure and track the transit, entry and exit of both licit and illicit goods in a given national territory. Accordingly, measures to improve port security have adopted approaches and features similar to the policing of other security threats, including terrorism and organised crime – especially with regards to the illicit trafficking of drugs. This means that port policing, together with policing of terrorism and organised crime, is increasingly considered through the same lenses as physical border security and national security itself.

In January 2019, together with Dr Luca Storti from the University of Turin, I began leading a project looking at the challenges of policing organised crime and drug trafficking in the ports of Liverpool, Genoa, Montreal, New York and Melbourne. Although it may look like a highly organised business, the importation of drugs, especially cocaine, has previously been described as a very chaotic game.


More sophisticated criminal groups may leverage the whole supply chain in the port to their advantage


Policing drug trafficking on the waterfront

To complete a drug importation - a ‘job’ – traffickers and importers need a way in, or a ‘door’ to a country. Ports are such doors, although obviously not the only ones. Given the porous nature of state borders and high volumes of globalised trade, there is no absolutist way to stop drugs from coming in. Indeed, trade, productivity and smoothness in business are the main goals for actors in the port economy; but these are not always in line with the needs of security and policing agencies.  In many cases, security checks are considered a cost rather than an added resource, as they tend to slow down business and effect customer satisfaction. This is also true when looking at the lack of controls on outgoing trafficking – which is in part counterintuitive in consideration of the ‘trust’ system that every country seeks to establish with trading partners.

Policing agencies’ most problematic task on the waterfront is to understand that while heightened security measures might close one ‘door’, another one will surely open in return. This is principally because the demand for drugs does not decrease solely through prohibition and repression. Yet drug trafficking in ports relies not only on cunning criminals, but also the role of corrupt officials and authorised operators. Curbing port workers’ involvement in organised crime, on one side, and increasing scrutiny on incoming individuals and ships on the other, have been the main approaches undertaken by governments seeking to improve policing of their waterfront. For example, one measure includes an attempt to better control individuals’ access to ports, for example by scripting intrusive clearance checks for employees or issuing smart cards to secure high-risk areas. Others include the creation of a centralised list of ‘trusted insiders’, companies, who pass pre-arranged integrity tests and therefore can be considered good partners.


Drug trafficking in ports relies not only on cunning criminals, but also the role of corrupt officials and authorised operators


The bigger picture of organised crime in seaports

Moreover, drug trafficking is not the only manifestation of organised crime in ports. Indeed next to trafficking, organised crime groups (OCGs) are involved in the structural governance of ports that makes them amenable to criminal activity, including the infiltration of the port economy and supply chain and attempts to direct the governance of port development and strategies to their advantage.

Often, these embedded crime links are unearthed during drug trafficking investigations, for example when criminal groups use businesses in the port (i.e. transport companies) to conduct and support drug trafficking activities. More sophisticated criminal groups may leverage the whole supply chain in the port to their advantage. Infiltrating the port economy, however, also means exploiting the opportunity of contracts for services at the port, i.e. construction, supply of machinery, catering services and so on.

This permeability is enabled by the fact that complex institutional settings such as ports do not respond to normal public administration logics, largely because they are often run through highly discretional powers that drive decision processes regarding development and management. This power and lack of oversight can easily lead to illegal activities, abuse of power and informal favours and agreements. The complex nature of the port economy and opaque governance structures are appealing to several actors, many of who operate through both legal and illegal activities, seeking economic benefits as well as indirect advantages of a political nature.

Ultimately, the success of a long-term trafficking operation depends not only on how good organised criminals are in staying ahead of new security systems and compliance checks, but how adeptly they infiltrate the port economy and its governance structures. This will depend, in turn, on an OCG’s ability to understand the social, economic and political context in which each port exists. An effective counter action, therefore, cannot solely be a matter of improving existing prevention and disruption systems that are already in place. By enhancing technology and/or control mechanisms, criminal operations might just as easily be displaced to other areas, or change techniques. Rather, understanding the social, economic and political context in which ports exist will remain the most crucial element of any effective counter-trafficking operation.

Dr Anna Sergi is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Essex.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution. 

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