Cruise ships are being targeted by drug traffickers to smuggle cocaine from South America to Britain and mainland Europe, according to a warning issued by the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the UK Border Agency.
They say there is growing evidence that gangs are placing couriers on board ships, and also attempting to corrupt crewmembers, in order to bring in “multi-kilo loads” of drugs.
The warning was issued as eight eastern Europeans are to be sentenced at Canterbury Crown Court today after being convicted of attempting to bring 35kg of cocaine ashore from MSC Orchestra when it arrived in Dover from Brazil in May last year.
The drugs, worth an estimated £2.1 million, were found sewn into body suits in the cabins of four Bulgarians and four Lithuanians.
Brad Jones, executive director of SOCA, said: “By warning the cruise and travel industries of potential signs of criminal exploitation, we can stop ships from being an attractive form of ready-made transportation for drug traffickers .”
Cruise operators and travel agents are advised to be particularly wary of passengers who book at the last minute and pay in cash, and to be suspicious of those who do not appear to fit in with other passengers – such as younger people on a ship full of over-50s, or those who choose not to join in on-board activities.
Staff should also be on the look-out for crew who attempt to access areas of the ship not associated with their jobs, adds SOCA.
In May last year, two unemployed Spanish men who had sailed on Black Watch from Peru to Southampton were jailed for 12 years each following a failed attempt to smuggle 33kg of cocaine discovered in leggings worn beneath their trousers.
And in 2008 four people were arrested as they disembarked from P&O’s Arcadia carrying 20 kilos of cocaine worth an estimated £1.2 million strapped to their bodies. They were also jailed for 12 years each and Southampton Crown Court was told that the ship’s security officers became suspicious because the three women in the group were much younger than other passengers.
According to SOCA, about a third of the UK’s cocaine supply is produced in Colombia, or from the border areas of neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador. Peru and Bolivia account for the vast majority of the remainder.
Various routes and methods are used to get the drug to the UK, which is one of Europe’s largest markets. Traditionally, most of the cocaine destined for Europe, including the UK, has crossed the Atlantic by ship and entered via Spain.
UPDATE: Five men and two women were jailed for their parts in the MSC Orchestra drug smuggling plot, which a judge described as being run like a military exercise. One man had been convicted in a trial at Canterbury Crown Court; the others all pleaded guilty. Another woman will be sentenced on Monday.
Kostadin Malev, who had denied the offences, was said to be the ringleader of the plot and was sentenced to 20 years. The others received 12 year terms. Judge James O’Mahony said “It was planned to the last detail with no expense spared. You were all fully joined up members of a sophisticated criminal operation.”
UK Border Agency officers who searched four cabins found packets of cocaine stitched into specially-made knee-length shorts. The gang had booked their cruise in Amsterdam and had paid in cash. They boarded the ship in Brazil and sailed to Dover via the Canary Islands, Madeira, Portugal and Spain.