Category Archives: Ocean Governance

Pushing or Overstepping? Legal Boundaries in the Fight against Maritime Drug Smuggling, Pt. 1

By Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper


Every day, U.S. Coast Guard cutters patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea for drug smuggling vessels, seizing more cocaine than all other American law enforcement agencies combined. Federal prosecutors then bring charges against the detained smugglers under a controversial and confusing legal regime. By analyzing the lifecycle of a case – from interdiction to detention to prosecution – this two-part article explores (1) the extraterritorial jurisdiction established by the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA); (2) the practice of detaining suspected smugglers aboard Coast Guard cutters for weeks without formal arrest; and (3) the interaction between intelligence gathering and the trial penalty. In each of these instances, a different branch of the federal government is pushing against – if not overstepping – legal constraints in order to empower the Coast Guard in the fight against maritime drug smuggling. This is a fragile system, however, and should one of these government branches become squeamish, the whole apparatus could collapse.

Overview of the Coast Guard’s Counter-Maritime Drug Trafficking Mission

The Coast Guard is both an armed service and a federal law enforcement agency. While the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are barred from conducting law enforcement operations by the Posse Comitatus Act 1 and other federal law,2 the Coast Guard is not.3 Therefore, the Coast Guard has become the lead federal agency for maritime law enforcement on the high seas, which are those waters that fall outside of any nation’s twelve-nautical-mile territorial seas.4

The Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement mission pits a small sea-going service of approximately 40,000 active duty members against powerful transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). TCOs use various means to transport cocaine north from coca producers in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia to cocaine consumers in the United States. Maritime smuggling is a preferred option for transport that generally occurs in one of the following two ways: 1) Cocaine is transported by boat from the Pacific coast of South America to the Pacific coast of Central America, at which point shipments are divided into smaller loads for overland transit through Mexico and across the border; or, to a lesser extent, 2) cocaine is transported by boat from the Caribbean coast of South America to either the Caribbean coast of Central America or to various Caribbean islands for further transit – again, in smaller quantities – to the United States. Competition for these drug trafficking corridors has caused destabilizing violence throughout the hemisphere.

The modes of maritime transit can be roughly grouped into the following three categories: slow-movers, go-fasts, and hard-to-detects.5 “Slow-movers” include commercial fishing vessels and coastal freighters outfitted with secret compartments or parasitic devices. Oftentimes, only certain crewmembers are even aware that their vessel is being used for illegal purposes. “Go-fasts” are speedboats that carry contraband openly on deck and rely on speed and maneuverability to evade law enforcement assets. “Hard-to-detects” include low-profile and semi-submersible vessels that are virtually impossible to detect via visual or electronic sensors.

For any successful interdiction, the Coast Guard must be able to find the suspect vessel, stop it, and locate the contraband. The relative difficulty of these tasks varies depending on whether a particular case involves a slow-mover, a go-fast, or a hard-to-detect. In order to find the target of interest, Coast Guard operational planners rely on intelligence regarding the suspect vessel’s anticipated movements. In order to stop the target of interest, Coast Guard law enforcement teams then employ warning shots and disabling fire from agile small boats or helicopters. Finally, in order to locate the contraband, Coast Guard boarding teams use complex space accountability computations and state-of-the-art drug detection equipment.

In September 2019, U.S. Coast Guard boarding team members climb aboard a suspected smuggling vessel in the Eastern Pacific (Image credit: Luke Cla, USCG).

This sophisticated operational and tactical regime only works when and where the Coast Guard has the legal authority to pursue its counter-maritime drug trafficking mission. Thanks to the aggressive legislation, favorable judicial holdings, and proactive executive actions that will be explored below, the Coast Guard enjoys a great degree of latitude in combatting TCOs on the high seas.

Far-Flung Interdictions and the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction of the MDLEA

The Coast Guard can only operate if it has jurisdiction.6 In those situations where there is a clear nexus with the United States – i.e. a target of interest is in U.S. territorial seas, the vessel itself is American-flagged, or the master is a U.S. citizen – jurisdiction is easily achieved. However, when none of those three boxes is checked – as they rarely are in drug smuggling cases – the legal picture is less clear. Given this lack of clarity, how is it that the Coast Guard can board non-U.S. vessels in non-U.S. waters to detain foreign nationals?

The answer to this question is the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA), which Congress passed in 1986.7 Grounded in Congress’s Constitutional power to “define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the High Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations,”8 the statute made “drug smuggling on the high seas a crime against the United States and [gave] the Coast Guard the authority to search for, detain, and bring suspected drug traffickers back to the United States for prosecution.”9 Under the conspiracy provision of the MDLEA, even members of trafficking networks who have never set foot on a boat can be extradited to the U.S.10 The most important – and controversial – portion of the MDLEA, however, is that section which extends U.S. jurisdiction over the following six categories of vessels: (1) a vessel without nationality (also known as “stateless”); (2) a vessel assimilated to without nationality;11 (3) a foreign-flagged vessel if the flag state consents or waives objection to the enforcement of United States law; (4) a vessel in U.S. customs waters; (5) a vessel in the territorial seas of another nation if that nation consents to the enforcement of United States law; and (6) a vessel in the U.S. contiguous zone.12

The U.S. government had to be creative in justifying a statute with this degree of extraterritorial reach since universal jurisdiction does not apply to drug smuggling – it is not illegal under customary international law13 – and it is difficult to prove that a particular shipment of narcotics seized in the eastern Pacific Ocean or Caribbean Sea is destined for the United States. Instead, the ostensibly aggressive approach taken by the U.S. government can be tied to the protective principle of international law. Because of “the deleterious effects of drug trafficking in the United States and on regional stability,”14 the U.S. government considers itself justified in proactively combatting this threat through law enforcement operations well beyond its borders.15

Because most Western Hemisphere governments are in favor of fighting drug trafficking, there has been relatively little international pushback against the MDLEA. Furthermore, the reach of the MDLEA is heavily dependent upon the cooperation of international allies, especially with regards to those categories of vessels subject to U.S. jurisdiction. In exchange for economic and military aid, many source and transit zone nations have signed bilateral agreements with the United States.16 These agreements often give the U.S. Coast Guard the authority and jurisdiction to conduct operations in partner-state territorial seas or against partner-state-flagged vessels.17 Not surprisingly, this particularly ambitious jurisdictional aspect of the MDLEA has garnered significant scrutiny from U.S. courts.

MDLEA Jurisdiction over Foreign-Flagged Vessels Boarded with Flag-State Approval

Foreign nationals charged with violating the MDLEA have had varying degrees of success challenging the statute’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. While all circuits recognize U.S. jurisdiction over stateless vessels18 (and their occupants19) – which includes most go-fasts and virtually all hard-to-detects – there is disagreement regarding foreign-flagged vessels boarded by the Coast Guard with flag-state approval. The Ninth Circuit is the most defendant-friendly forum for this issue.

In United States v. Perlaza, the Ninth Circuit reversed the MDLEA convictions of Colombian nationals caught smuggling cocaine aboard a Colombian-flagged fishing vessel. The court held that although the Colombian government granted the Coast Guard permission to board the vessel and detain the crewmembers, the Fifth Amendment right of due process required that “for a United States court to properly exercise jurisdiction [over a foreign-flagged vessel], the Government still needs to establish some detrimental effect within, or nexus to, the United States.”20 The court reasoned that a defendant aboard a foreign-flagged vessel “would have a legitimate expectation that because he has submitted himself to the laws of one nation, other nations will not be entitled to exercise jurisdiction without some nexus.”21 From the government’s perspective, this analysis has made the Ninth Circuit an undesirable forum for many MDLEA cases, an issue that will be discussed further below.

The First and Eleventh Circuits – which handle many MDLEA cases through Puerto Rico and Florida, respectively – have not required a U.S. nexus for MDLEA prosecutions of foreign nationals detained aboard foreign-flagged vessels boarded with flag-state approval. In United States v. Trapp, for example, the District of Puerto Rico denied a motion to dismiss an MDLEA indictment brought by foreign nationals detained aboard a Grenadian-flagged vessel on the high seas after Grenada “waive[d] its primary right to exercise jurisdiction over the [vessel], its cargo, and its crew to the extent necessary for the enforcement of United States law.”22 The court held that the “MDLEA contains no explicit requirement that there be a nexus between a defendant’s criminal conduct and the United States” and that “a vessel ‘subject to the jurisdiction of the United States’ is defined to include ‘a vessel registered in a foreign nation if that nation has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United States law by the United States.’”23

Likewise, the Eleventh Circuit has found the application of the MDLEA to foreign-flagged vessels boarded with flag-state approval to be constitutional24 because (1) Congress allowed for this in § 70502(c)(1)(C) of the MDLEA;25and (2) the MDLEA is grounded in the “protective principle,” which “does not require that there be proof of an actual or intended effect within the United States.”26 By not finding any Fifth Amendment concerns with this critical aspect of the MDLEA’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, the First and Eleventh Circuits are government-friendly venues for this particular strain of cases. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Middle District of Florida and the District of Puerto Rico have permanent billets for Coast Guard lawyers.

MDLEA Jurisdiction over Vessels Boarded in Foreign Territorial Seas with Coastal State Approval

The application of the MDLEA to defendants interdicted in a foreign nation’s territorial seas with that nation’s approval was recently held unconstitutional by the government-friendly Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Davila-Mendoza, a case involving a Coast Guard interdiction made in Jamaican territorial seas with the approval of the Jamaican government.27 The court held that the MDLEA was unconstitutionally applied in Jamaica’s territorial seas – regardless of whether or not Jamaica had consented – because extraterritorial jurisdiction beyond the high seas was not justified by the “Foreign Commerce Clause,” the “Necessary and Proper Clause,”28 the “law of nations,”29 or the “Define and Punish clause.”30 Whether this ruling stands, however, remains to be seen, as the case may be appealed to the Supreme Court.31 If it does stand, existing bilateral agreements between the United States and many of its regional allies will lose some of their potency since Coast Guard cutters will no longer be able to target smuggling vessels located within those partner nations’ territorial seas.

MDLEA Jurisdiction Takeaways

All circuits agree that the MDLEA applies to foreign nationals smuggling drugs on the high seas aboard stateless vessels. However, prosecutions become more difficult in the Ninth Circuit if a foreign-flagged vessel is involved and are impossible in any circuit if the interdiction is made in foreign territorial seas. Nonetheless, the reach of the MDLEA is impressive. Through aggressive lawmaking and international deal-making, the U.S. government has created a legal environment that allows its maritime forces to dominate the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Both the domestic need for a robust law enforcement presence and the lack of any meaningful international resistance – save from perhaps Venezuela – has made this expansive dominion possible, one upon which the U.S. maritime counter-drug mission is built.

The second installment of this article will discuss the prolonged detention of suspected smugglers aboard Coast Guard cutters and the interaction between intelligence gathering and the trial penalty during prosecution. Read Part Two here.

Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper (@TBardenwerper89) served for five years as a Coast Guard officer assigned to cutters homeported in Maine and Puerto Rico. Thanks to the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program, Bardenwerper will graduate with a joint degree from Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this spring. His maritime migration-related novel Mona Passage will be published by Syracuse University Press in December.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1385 (1994) (“Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”).

[2] 10 U.S.C. § 275 (2016) (“The Secretary of Defense shall prescribe such regulations as may be necessary to ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel) under this chapter does not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.”).

[3] 14 U.S.C. § 102 (2018) (“The Coast Guard shall enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable Federal laws on, under, and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”).

[4] 33 C.F.R. § 2.32(a) (2020) (“For purposes of special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States […] high seas means all waters seaward of the territorial sea baseline.”).

[5] While “go-fast” is a commonly used term, the author came up with “slow-mover” and “hard-to-detect” for ease of explanation.

[6] 14 U.S.C. § 89 (2018) (“The Coast Guard may make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of laws of the United States.”).

[7] 46 U.S.C. §§ 70501-08 (2008).

[8] United States v. Campbell, 743 F.3d 802, 805 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting U.S. Const. Art. 1, § 8, cl. 10).

[9] Stringer, Morgan, The U.S. Coast Guard Is Arresting Drug Traffickers in Ecuadorian Waters. How Does That Work?, The Water Log 7 (The University of Mississippi Press, 2018).

[10] See e.g. United States v. Ballestas, 795 F.3d 138, 145 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (holding that because the substantive offense established by § 70503(a) of the MDLEA applies extraterritorially, so too does the conspiracy offense established by § 70506(b)); United States v. Mosquera-Murillo, 902 F.3d 285, 289 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (“We have held that a defendant can violate the [MDLEA’s] conspiracy provision without personally setting foot on board a covered vessel.”).

[11] Article 6.2 of the United Nations Convention on the High Seas (1958) (“A ship which sails under the flags of two or more states, using them according to convenience, may not claim any of the nationalities in question with respect to any other state, and may be assimilated to a ship without nationality.”).

[12] 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c) (2008).

[13] Aaron Casavant, In Defense of the U.S. Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act: A Justification for the Law’s Extraterritorial Reach, 8 Harv. Nat’l. Security J. 191, 197 (2017).

[14] Casavant, 197.

[15] See 46 U.S.C. § 70501 (2008) (“Congress finds and declares that (1) trafficking in controlled substances aboard vessels is a serious international problem, is universally condemned, and presents a specific threat to security and societal well-being of the United States.”).

[16] Joseph Kramek, Bilateral Maritime Counter-Drug and Immigrant Interdiction Agreements: Is This the World of the Future?, 31:1 U. of Miami Inter-American L. Rev. 121, 146  (2000).

[17] Id. at 124.

[18] See e.g. United States v. Perlaza, 439 F.3d 1149, 1161 (9th Cir. 2006) (“There is one exception, however, to this ‘constitutional jurisdiction’ requirement: ‘if a vessel is deemed stateless, there is no requirement that the government demonstrate a nexus between those on board and the United States before exercising jurisdiction over them.’”); United States v. Van Der End, 943 F.3d 98, 105 (2d. Cir. 2019) (“MDLEA prosecutions involving stateless vessels do not present the same concerns that are present in the extraterritorial application of typical criminal statutes [because] stateless ‘vessels are international pariahs’ that ‘subject themselves to the jurisdiction of all nations.”).

[19] See United States v. Aybar-Ulloa, 987 F.3d 1, 1 (1st Cir. 2021) (“International law accepts the criminal prosecution by the United States of persons like Aybar, who was seized by the United States while trafficking cocaine on a stateless vessel on the high seas, just as if they were trafficking on a United States-flagged ship”.”); United States v. Cabezas-Montano, 949 F.3d 567, 587 (11th Cir. 2020) (“The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause does not prohibit the trial and conviction of aliens captured on the high seas while drug trafficking because the MDLEA provides clear notice that all nations prohibit and condemn drug trafficking aboard stateless vessels on the high seas.”).

[20] Perlaza, 439 F.3d at 1169.

[21] Id. (quoting United States v. Klimavicius-Viloria, 144 F.3d 1249, 1257 (9th Cir. 1998)).

[22] United States v. Trapp, Crim. No. 16-159, 2017 WL 2821904 at *1 (D.P.R. 2017).

[23] Id. at *2 (quoting 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c)(1)(C)).

[24] See United States v. Castillo, 899 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2018) (upholding the MDLEA conviction and sentence of a foreign national detained aboard a Guatemalan-flagged vessel).

[25] 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c)(1)(C) (2008) (“A ‘vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States’ includes a vessel registered in a foreign nation if that nation has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United States law by the United States.”).

[26] United States v. Garcia, 182 F.Appx. 873, 876 (11th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Gonzalez, 776 F.2d 931, 938 (11th Cir. 1985)).

[27] United States v. Davila-Mendoza, 972 F.3d 1264 (11th Cir. 2020).

[28] Id. at 1267.

[29] United States v. Bellaizac-Hurtado, 700 F.3d 1245, 1258 (11th Cir. 2012).

[30] Id. at 1249-53.

[31] Josh Blackman, Eleventh Circuit Panel finds that Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act exceeds Congress’s Powers under the Foreign Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause Powers, Reason Magazine (September 12, 2020),

Featured Image: Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf boarding teams interdict a low-profile go-fast vessel in November 2019 while patrolling international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. (Image credit:Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Krug)

Worldwide Ocean Governance: Protecting the Most Vulnerable Assets—Ports and Harbors

By Jack Rowley

Worldwide “Ocean Governance” asks the important question: “How can navies and coast guards better coordinate with local governments and international agencies in countering violence at sea? What lessons can be learned from instances of good onshore/offshore collaboration? How are governments working together across jurisdictions and in international waters to counter this threat?”

As a former U.S. naval officer, naval architect and ocean engineer, I recognize that this is a crucial question. However, I believe that when most people think about the worldwide “ocean governance,” they think of the safety of ships on the seventy-percent of the globe covered by water. That is a normal reaction. Conversely, I think in terms of the most vulnerable part of the equation: the ports and harbors from which ships sail and that (unwittingly) often serve as the conduit for illegal activities such as trafficking in persons, drugs and many kinds of contraband.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on the term “globalization” – the international interaction of information, financial capital, commerce, technology and labor at exponentially greater speeds than previously thought possible. Globalization has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. And most would agree that trade – carried primarily by sea – has been the engine of globalization in the past and continues to be so today. While most press reports have focused on the importance of ships in carrying this vital trade, these same accounts have failed to identify the critical nodes that support this globalization and burgeoning world trade.

Those nodes are the world’s harbors. From Shanghai, to Rotterdam, to Los Angeles, to other mega-ports, as well as hundreds of other, smaller ports, these harbors are critical to world prosperity. A disaster in one of them – an oil tank explosion, a fire or other catastrophe on a large oil tanker, or any of a host of other events – could close one of these ports for an indefinite time and also spill an enormous amount of pollution into the oceans. The challenge of providing comprehensive security for an average size port, let alone some of the world’s mega-ports, can sometimes lure port authorities into wishing away the challenge.

Port authorities must ensure port security twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. This task includes continuous inspection of port assets as well as on-demand inspections after storms or other disasters, threat detection and security response, ongoing surveys to ensure navigable waterways, hull inspections, and a wide-range of other missions. Port authorities must accomplish these myriad tasks while monitoring port activities’ impacts on the environment and maintaining a positive image with the local community.

Today’s State of the Art for Port Security

Current security measures in most ports involve monitoring the video provided by cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the ports’ expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of port authorities to provide comprehensive security and typically leads to serious – and potentially fatal – gaps in coverage.

Cameras offer one means of monitoring a port. That said, the human cost is often high. Someone must monitor the video for the cameras to have any purpose, let alone effectiveness. With some ports maintaining scores of cameras this entails having a command center and enough watchstanders to monitor all of the cameras in real-time, around the clock.

There are similar challenges involved in the use of manned craft to patrol a harbor of any size. Manned vessel operations are often limited by weather and water conditions. For most ports, multiple manned vessels are needed to guarantee sufficient revisit time to ensure that a threat has not slipped through the security net. Compounding the issue is the physical toll of riding a small vessel – either a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) or other craft. Unlike watchstanders on land who might be able to work shifts as long as eight or even twelve hours, pounding through often-choppy harbors in a RHIB or other small craft means that a watch rotation of somewhere between three and four hours is about all most people can endure.

All-in-all, this is an expensive undertaking. Moreover, there are many shallow areas throughout ports that are beyond the reach of any manned vessels. Even limited draft craft like RHIBs draw some water when they are loaded with people, communications equipment, weapons and the like.

Given the challenges of providing comprehensive security for ports with current state-of-the-art systems and capabilities, it is little wonder that port officials are searching for technology solutions that will enable them to provide better security, at lower costs, and without putting people at risk. Some have begun to turn to new technology like unmanned surface vehicles to complement current capabilities.

A Mega-Port with a Challenge

The Port of Los Angeles is the busiest port in the United States. This mega-port comprises forty-three miles of waterfront, forty-two square miles of water and eighty-six ship-to-shore container cranes. Last year, the Port of Los Angeles handled almost ten million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo. This volume is predicted to increase year-over-year. Additionally, POLA is scheduled to soon bring on a substantial liquid natural gas (LNG) handling capability.

Today, Port of Los Angeles (POLA) officials monitor the video provided by 500 cameras, and patrol the port with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide 24/7/365 security. Additionally, POLA has a large number of shallow areas throughout its forty-three miles of waterfront that are beyond the reach of any of the manned vessels.

Current capabilities to secure the Port of Los Angeles involve monitoring the video provided by hundreds of cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the port’s expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide around the clock security.

Port of Los Angeles officials must ensure security against a wide range of human attacks as well as natural disasters. One need only spend a short time on the ground and on the water of this port to understand the magnitude of the challenge. And what is crucially important is that the Port of Los Angeles challenge is not a unique one. It exists in ports from Singapore, to Antwerp, to Shanghai, to Rotterdam to many, many others.

Results of the Port of Los Angeles Demonstration

Port of Los Angeles officials had a mandate from a number of stakeholders to determine if using unmanned surface vehicles could help secure the port. The port invited Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) to visit and demonstrate the capabilities of their MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV). MANTAS is a high-performance USV built on a catamaran-style hull and comes in a number of variants ranging in size from 6-foot to 50-foot. A demonstration was conducted with a 12-foot MANTAS as it was currently available, and the 12-foot size would be the minimum size viable for conduct of any of the wide-variety of POLA missions described above.

The 12-foot MANTAS (T12) has a length of twelve feet and a width of three feet. It draws only seven inches of water. The vessel weighs 260 pounds and has a carrying capacity of 140 pounds. Its twin-screw electric propulsion prime mover enables the T12 to cruise at a comfortable 20 knots in sea state three.

The modularity of the MANTAS allows it to be equipped with a wide variety of above-surface sensors (EO/IR/thermal video) and below-surface sensors (sonars and echo-sounders), as well as other devices such as chem/bio/nuclear sensors, water quality monitors, and above/below surface environmental sensors. Real-time monitoring is provided by a MANTAS communications package that can support marine VHF, networked RF, 4GLTE, or satellite communications.

In their efforts to find an unmanned surface vehicle manufacturer to provide a port and harbor security demonstration POLA authorities did their due diligence that led them to MARTAC Inc. MANTAS had performed well in a port security demonstration conducted by the U.S. Army. Three MANTAS T-series vessels were part of the Mobile Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration in Concord, CA. The objective of this demonstration was to assess MANTAS’ ability to patrol and protect the harbor, and especially the loading of ammunition ships. For these missions, three MANTAS vessels, T6, T8 and T12, were used to perform different operations.

The MANTAS T6 was utilized as an intercept vessel to quickly address potential threats at high-speeds – up to 55 knots. It was equipped with a standard electro/optical camera focused on rapid interdiction and base threat identification. The second vessel was a MANTAS T8, with a medium performance envelope of 25 knots. Its role was as a forward-looking harbor vessel situational awareness asset. The T8 operated forward of a harbor patrol vessel working in areas that were not accessible with manned vessels.

The final vessel was a MANTAS T12 tasked with prosecuting above and below surveillance operations to detect and identify intruder vessels, divers, kayaks or other threats to harbor assets. The MANTAS T12 was tasked to detect and provide the precise images for operator threat identification to determine appropriate response level. The MANTAS boats, and specifically the T12, have an open architecture and modular design, which facilitates the rapid changing of payload and sensor components to provide day-to-day port security as well as on-demand inspections.

Port of Los Angeles organized their MANTAS evaluation into three segments:

  • An extended boat tour of the harbor so that MARTAC representatives could understand the entirety of POLA authorities’ span of operations.
  • A comprehensive briefing on MANTAS capabilities where MARTAC officials explained the capabilities of the various size MANTAS USVS.
  • A remote demonstration where port officials controlled and observed MANTAS operating remotely off the eastern coast of Florida.

Based on the results of this event, it was determined that the capabilities of this USV met the requirements for the Port of Los Angeles to use a USV to complement its extant monitoring capabilities. However, the Port further determined that a T12 was too small to accomplish the mission effectively. This determination, coupled with the suggestions of other port officials and U.S. Coast Guard representatives, resulted in MARTAC undertaking a process of “scaling-up” the MANTAS to larger 24-foot (T24), 38-foot (T38) and 50-foot (T50) vessels for conduct of the port and harbor security mission.

These larger size craft will provide better solutions for ports and harbors as they are more visible to ships entering and leaving the harbor, they can carry additional sensors and, most significantly, the larger craft provide for increased speed up to 80kts burst which would be used for unknown vessel intercept and identification. The larger MANTAS T24, T38 and T50 additionally provide for extended patrol distances and longer patrol endurance. A follow-up port and harbor security demonstration using both the T12s and a new prototype T38E was conducted in the Port of Tampa in October 2020. This demonstration, on site within the port, clearly illustrated the improvements that the larger craft brings to the mission success in the significant challenges presented within the realm of port and harbor security.

The Future of Port and Harbor Protection

The Port of Los Angeles event, coupled with the later Port of Tampa demonstrations, showed that commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned surface vehicles can conduct a comprehensive harbor security inspection of a mega-port through effective onshore/offshore collaboration. As facilities with longstanding needs to augment manned vessel patrol activities with emergent technology in the form of unmanned surface vehicles, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Tampa demonstrations provided best-practice examples of the art-of-the-possible for enhancing port security.

Until recently, the technology to provide reliable, comprehensive and affordable USV support to augment manned capabilities and expand the reach of port police at facilities such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Tampa did not exist. Today it is readily available in the form of commercial off-the-shelf unmanned surface vessels, and these can be harnessed to increase the effectiveness of port protection while driving down costs. The end result will be an enhanced comprehensive port security, not merely wishful thinking.

In an article in the January 2020 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Commander Rob Brodie noted: “When the Navy and Marine Corps consider innovation, they usually focus on technology they do not possess and not on how to make better use of the technology they already have.” Extrapolating his assertion to the multiple entities responsible for port and harbor security at mega-ports such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Tampa, one must ask if we are too slow to leverage an innovative solution that can be grasped immediately.

There is a distinct danger in waiting too long to put innovative COTS solutions to use. Mega-ports support globalization and the worldwide security and prosperity it delivers. Leaders should remain cognizant of the obligation and the challenge of protecting these vital nodes. Securing these ports must be a first-order priority for all nations. If successful, this will ensure that the most vulnerable assets in a quest for Worldwide Ocean Governance are protected.

LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley (USN-Ret) is a career Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer whose 22 years of active duty included nine years of enlisted service before commissioning. Since his retirement he has continued to work, as a Naval Architect and Ocean Engineer, with the marine ship design and construction areas in both government and commercial sectors. He has had extensive experience with unmanned surface vehicles including serving as the SAIC Lead Engineer in the early stages of the development of the DARPA/ONR Sea Hunter USV Trimaran now operating with the Navy in the Port of San Diego. He currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC).

Featured Image: Aerial view from the overhead the Port of Los Angeles, facing South, with Santa Catalina Island on the horizon. Photo credit: Port of Los Angeles.

Looking Past Gulf of Guinea Piracy: Chinese Twins, “Ghanaian” Fishing, and Domain Awareness

By Dr. Ian Ralby

The recapture of the pirated Chinese fishing vessel Hai Lu Feng 11 on 16 May 2020 stands as one of the most successful recent examples of both maritime security cooperation and naval operations in the Gulf of Guinea. Pirates took the vessel and its crew of 11 on 14 May off of Côte d’Ivoire and sailed across the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Ghana, Togo, and Benin before being interdicted 14 nautical miles off the coast of Nigeria. The information sharing across the region and the operations by the navies of Benin and Nigeria led to the successful release of the vessel and the hostages. The case will soon be the first true piracy case tried under Nigeria’s new Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offenses Act. 

Any deterrent effect from these successes, however, was not evident a month later when on 24 June 2020 the F/V Panofi Frontier, a Ghanaian-flagged vessel, was pirated off Benin with six crew members—one Ghanaian and five South Korean—taken hostage. The South Korean government, along with the vessel’s owner—a South Korean company—and the Ghanaian government, were involved in securing the release of the hostages, all of whom were freed by the end of July. 

Much could be said about these two piracy incidents and what has happened since, but examining what each vessel was doing before it was attacked provides a new and important angle of insight into the region’s maritime space, all of which point to a need to rethink maritime domain awareness in the region. Civilian vessels not only avoid monitoring by turning off tracking devices, they engage in a variety of illegal practices to obscure their identity.

Sharing identities with other vessels, and engaging in corporate schemes to allow foreign companies to operate as domestic entities blur the already murky picture of maritime operations in the region. Regional governments need to take a new approach to maritime domain awareness, not only to better address illegality of all sorts, but to respond to emergency situations like pirate attacks. That approach has to include a mix of tools and techniques, including leveraging technology, conducting analysis, improving legal awareness and reforming laws, establishing processes and procedures for effective response, and, ultimately, building trust through an honest confrontation with what is really happening in the waters of West and Central Africa. 

Insights from the Hai Lu Feng 11

Algorithmic analysis by Windward, a predictive maritime intelligence platform, of all the vessels transmitting Automated Information System (AIS) in the EEZs of the coastal states of the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) indicates that between 1 September 2019 and 1 September 2020, a total of 527 vessels engaged in fishing operations. The Hai Lu Feng 11 is equipped with an AIS transponder, and was fishing on 14 May when it was pirated. Surprisingly, however, it does not appear on the list of 527 transmitting vessels. 

The Hai Lu Feng 11 was pirated outside the territorial sea of Côte d’Ivoire, but oddly, the following image captures the entirety of the traceable movements of the vessel over the eleven-month period after it arrived in Côte d’Ivoire for the first time on 30 October 2019: 

The detectable movements of the F/V Hai Lu Feng 11 from 30 October 2019 to 30 September 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

Therefore, while the Hai Lu Feng 11 was the victim of piracy, it had also not followed the requirements of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention to maintain its AIS turned on. Why was the Hai Lu Feng 11 operating dark other than when it was in the lagoon area around the port of Abidjan? How can the region improve its maritime domain awareness if both victims and perpetrators operate in the dark? And what else might be going unnoticed off the coast of Atlantic Africa? While a comprehensive answer to those questions would likely consume several volumes, a few interesting patterns arise in analyzing AIS data that may help give some answers.

Double Trouble

A substantial number of the vessels that fished in the ECOWAS region between September 2019 and September 2020 were sharing something they should not have. Twenty-seven vessels shared thirteen vessel names. In one case, three different fishing vessels, all flagged in the Gambia, and all using the same Mobile Maritime Service Identity (MMSI) number, used the name The Gambia 4. The full list is as follows:

Name Flag
1 Dak940 Senegal
2 Dak940 Senegal
3 Fu Hai Yu 5555 China
4 Fu Hai Yu 5555 China
5 Fu Yuan Yu 381 China
6 Fu Yuan Yu 381 China
7 Guo Ji China
8 Guo Ji China
9 Han Sen 5 The Gambia
10 Han Sen 5 The Gambia
11 Long Tai 1 China
12 Long Tai 1 Ghana
13 Long Xing 622 China
14 Long Xing 622 China
15 Lu Qing Yuan Yu 051 China
16 Lu Qing Yuan Yu 051 China
17 Lu Yuan Kai Yuan Yu 877 China
18 Lu Yuan Kai Yuan Yu 877 China
19 The Gambia 4 The Gambia
20 The Gambia 4 The Gambia
21 The Gambia 4 The Gambia
22 Wang 6 The Gambia
23 Wang 6 The Gambia
24 Yi Fen 26 China
25 Yi Fen 26 China
26 Yi Feng 30 China
27 Yi Feng 30 China

Chart by the author using Windward data to indicate the vessels with identical names fishing in the ECOWAS region between 1 September 2019 and 1 September 2020. 

While it would be bad enough that these vessels were sharing names, often under the same flag, they also sometimes shared International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers and MMSI numbers, each of which is legally required to be distinct. Even vessels that did not share names may have shared these other identifiers. Excluding the vessels that had unknown IMO numbers, the following vessels shared IMO numbers: 

Name Flag
1 Long Tai 1 China
2 Long Tai 1 Ghana
3 Lu Qing Yuan Yu 057 China
4 Lu Qing Yuan Yu 051 China

Chart by the author using Windward data to indicate the vessels with identical IMO numbers fishing in the ECOWAS region between 1 September 2019 and 1 September 2020. 

What is most interesting here is not that the two Long Tai 1 vessels overlap from the first list, but that another vessel also used the same name as the Lu Qing Yuan Yu 051, even while this one was sharing an IMO number with the Lu Qing Yuan Yu 057. In other words the two Lu Qing Yuan Yu 051 vessels and the Lu Qing Yuan Yu 057 were in a strange triangle, each sharing something of the other. 

When it comes to MMSI numbers another challenge arises—a number of the vessels that shared MMSIs with other vessels do not have clear names. Beyond the vessels in these last two charts, there are a few others that only share MMSI numbers, but the picture is messy and confusing to say the least. Given that the aim of all these identifiers is to have unique profiles for each vessel, this is a problem regardless of the other activities in which the vessels engage. The region cannot effectively govern its maritime space without addressing this issue, as there is no way to gain clarity amid the resulting confusion. 

This creates serious concerns for security and governance as well. If several vessels have the same name, perhaps only one may get a license. So, for example, if The Gambia 4 has a license to fish, there is no reason law enforcement would stop The Gambia 4 from fishing. But three vessels may be fishing under that same name and thus that same license, meaning that they are getting three for the price of one and could be tripling their quota in turn. Equally, the implications for interdicting vessels suspected of other crimes, like trafficking, are quite challenging if there are no clear indicators of which vessel is which. This is a law enforcement nightmare, as the welter of matching names, IMO numbers, and MMSI numbers makes it hard to conclusively identify a vessel without there being some doubt.

Mirror Meetings 

The presence of so many vessels with overlapping identities in the region is made more complicated by the fact that they also have a tendency to meet with each other or with vessels of nearly identical names. For example, in the period between September 2019 and September 2020 the following vessels met: 

  • Hai Lu Feng 9 and Hai Lu Feng in Côte d’Ivoire
  • Long Tai 1 (China) and Long Tai 1 (Ghana) in Ghana 
  • Hai Lu Feng 1 (China) and Hai Lu Feng 5 (Ghana) in Ghana 
  • Hao Yuan Yu 866 and Hao Yuan Yu 860 in Liberia 
  • Fu Hai Yu 333 and Fu Hai Yu 555 in Sierra Leone 

These are just some of the meetings between mirrored or virtually mirrored vessels in that time period. The concern is that this can create challenges for and confusion among law enforcement and those monitoring the maritime space. For example, the Long Tai 1 from China could – hypothetically – enter Ghana’s EEZ with some sort of illicit good like drugs, meet with the Long Tai 1 from Ghana, and exchange the drugs for fish. The Ghanaian vessel could then fish some more and return unchecked, with a cargo of drugs as well as fish, while the Chinese Long Tai 1 could transship at sea, without anyone suspecting either “Long Tai 1” of anything. This dynamic requires new approaches to maritime domain awareness to ensure that coastal states can effectively monitor and then interdict illicit maritime activity. 

Here, too, we see that the Hai Lu Feng name is not without murkiness. While it was the Hai Lu Feng 11 flying a Chinese flag, there are a variety of Hai Lu Feng vessels in the region. The vessels carrying that name include 1 (China – fishing), 2 (China – high speed craft), 2 (China – fishing), 4 (China – cargo), 5 (China – fishing), 5 (Ghana – fishing), 6 (China – tanker), 6 (China – unknown class), 6 (Ghana – fishing), 7 (China – fishing), 8 (China – fishing), 9 (China – fishing), 09 (China – fishing), 10 (China – fishing), 11 (China – fishing), 12 (China – fishing). Complicating matters further, the vessels are frequently renumbered such that the 5 becomes 6, 4 becomes 2, etc. The inclusion of the Ghana flag in the mix is noteworthy. As with the Long Tai 1, the ability of two vessels of the same name, but different flags, to meet and create confusion for anyone trying to understand vessel movements undercuts maritime domain awareness. 

Dark Activity

Given that the Hai Lu Feng 11 was dark both when it was attacked and, evidently, during any fishing activities it conducted in the region, it is perhaps not surprising that other vessels fishing in the region have an unusually high propensity to spend time dark as well. Out of the previously mentioned 527 vessels, 396 of them—or 75%—spent time with AIS actively turned off while at sea during the period from 1 September 2019 to 1 September 2020. By contrast, the Pacific coast of South America in the same time period saw 870 vessels fish, with 437—less than half—having periods of dark activity. 

This is not merely signal loss, and so it raises the question: why? Dark activity, while likely a violation of the SOLAS Convention’s requirement that AIS stay turned on, is not per se illegal. It is, however, a strong indicator of suspicious activity. And when it comes to fishing vessels, there are three main concerns: 1) engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; 2) transshipping catch in furtherance of IUU fishing; or 3) engagement in fisheries crime. Analyzing the dark activity of these 396 vessels may be a useful exercise, but for the purpose of this analysis, the key to note is that there is a lot of activity in the region that the vessels do not want seen. Some of that may be for safety reasons – to avoid detection by pirates looking to attack vessels that cannot make a speedy retreat on account of fishing activities. Maritime domain awareness requires multiple data sources to gain a more complete picture, as AIS alone will not be sufficient. 

Vessel Monitoring and the Pirate Attack 

While the Hai Lu Feng 11 was dark when it was attacked, it was monitored on the Ivorian vessel monitoring system (VMS) used to keep track of fishing vessels in the country’s waters. However, the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Animal and Fisheries Resources, not the Ivorian Navy, controls the VMS, so when the vessel was attacked, there was a delay before Fisheries clarified the anomaly to the Navy. The lack of a common operating picture at the national and regional levels remains a challenge, and while it could be overcome with efficient interagency communication, whole-of-government approaches to maritime governance are always challenging. In the case of the Hai Lu Feng 11, rapid notification by Chinese officials to the various states along the coast helped make the regional approach effective. This is an important takeaway for how to bypass other maritime domain awareness deficiencies, particularly at the multinational level. 

Insights from the Panofi Frontier

While the case of the Hai Lu Feng 11 was itself not terribly revealing, the absence of a history encouraged a deep dive into the more general nature of fishing vessel activity in the region. The Panofi Frontier, by contrast, reveals a movement pattern that has not received much attention in the region. Prior to being attacked, and again since, it has been engaged in a pattern of activity that moves not only laterally between different regional states, but across the Atlantic to the outer edge of the Brazilian EEZ. What is interesting, however, is that it is not alone. The whole fleet of “Panofi” vessels make similar journeys. Those vessels are all Ghana flagged and owned by a Ghanaian company. That company, Panofi Co., Ltd. in Tema, Ghana, is in turn owned by Silla Company of South Korea. In looking at the vessels’ paths, the similarity is unmistakable, particularly as most Ghana-flagged fishing vessels stay in Ghana or along the West African coast. For example: 

Track of the F/V Panofi Frontier (Ghana) between November 2019 and November 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)
Track of the F/V Panofi Master (Ghana) between November 2019 and November 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)
Track of the F/V Panofi Discoverer (Ghana) between November 2019 and November 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

The vessel tracks for the Panofi Path Finder, the Panofi Commander, the Panofi Fore Runner, and the Panofi Volunteer all look similar as well. While it makes sense that these vessels, all owned by the same company in Ghana and with the same beneficial owner in South Korea, might engage in a similar path, they are not the only ones. In fact, the Ghanaian Long Tai 1 discussed above follows a similar path: 

Track of the F/V Long Tai 1 (Ghana) between November 2019 and November 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

But so does the Chinese Long Tai 1

Track of the F/V Long Tai 1 (China) between November 2019 and November 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

Interestingly, other vessels owned and flagged in Ghana, but with Asian beneficial owners, also engage in similar patterns of activity; examples include the Atlantic Queen, the Agnes 1, and the Africa Star. At the same time, however, other flags from other parts of the world may also be used by companies related to these vessels. The Atlantic Glory and Atlantic Prince, for example, are both Belize flagged, but engage in similar routes. Both the Liberty Grace and the Liberty Queen are flagged in Liberia and owned by Asian-owned Liberian companies, yet they still conduct similar routes out of Ghana across to the edge of the Brazilian EEZ. For example: 

Track of the F/V Liberty Grace (Liberia) between November 2019 and November 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

Similarly, the Everrich 1 is flagged in Côte d’Ivoire, but operates out of Senegal, and also spends time in areas by the Brazilian EEZ, as well as parts of the Eastern Caribbean. The Gambian-flagged Sage also seems to use Senegal and Ghana as its landing points, only recently having started developing a presence in the region. And a number of vessels, based in Senegal, flying the Senegal flag, and having beneficial owners in Asia – including the Maximus, and the Diamalaye – all exhibit the same pattern.

By contrast to all of these Asian-owned vessels, most local vessels – even the biggest ones – rarely venture beyond the EEZ of African coastal states:

Track of a locally owned, operated and flagged Ghanaian fishing vessel over the course of a year. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

While none of the Asian-owned vessels is obviously – based on this information alone – engaged in illicit activity, it is important to know that these routes and patterns exist. It may simply be that the Asian companies are taking advantage of local basing and flagging to be able to fish in more abundant waters of the Atlantic high seas. Regional governments should be aware of this, however, as it may still impact the sustainability of the region’s fishery. Of interest to law enforcement however, and setting aside the prevalence of IUU fishing in Atlantic Africa, these vessels’ tracks raise concerns about opportunities for engagement in fisheries crime.

A recent spike in drug interdictions from South America indicates a growing transatlantic drug route from South America. Some of that is containerized, but fishing vessels are increasingly being used to move drugs worldwide. The regularity of the routes of these foreign-owned fishing vessels between West Africa and the Brazilian EEZ provide potential cover and opportunity for moving narcotics or other illicit goods into the Gulf of Guinea. At a minimum, therefore, the states of West Africa should be vigilant in monitoring these routes to ensure that the fishing vessels do not engage in fisheries crime, assisting cartels with trafficking drugs. 

Lessons for Maritime Domain Awareness 

Maritime domain awareness in Atlantic Africa is vital not only to helping stop piracy, but also to helping address other crimes and activities that degrade the environment and undermine the rule of law. This examination of just two vessels that were attacked by pirates in May and June 2020 revealed a wealth of insight into the movement and action of vessels in the region. As helpful as that is, this insight is limited. This maritime domain awareness now needs to be connected to maritime domain actors. If the people who have visibility on incidents are not looking into these patterns and questions on a regular basis, there is no hope of the region being able to take meaningful and timely action when an emergency, like a pirate attack, occurs. Atlantic Africa, therefore, needs to focus on developing five things simultaneously:

  1. Technology – Having access to the most comprehensive and advanced MDA platforms, like Windward, that focus on the full spectrum of illicit activity, not just one issue like transshipment or even just fishing. 
  2. Analysis – The data from the technology platform is just data until it is interpreted by someone who understands it, and the human analytical capacity of the Maritime Operations Centers and Multinational Maritime Coordination Centers needs greater attention. 
  3. Law – Something that is undesirable is not necessarily illegal. Something that is illegal is not necessarily actionable. Watchkeepers and operators need greater understanding not just of what is happening, but of what portion of it can be stopped legally. Arresting a vessel without the legal authority or jurisdiction to do so can actually embolden criminals. 
  4. Processes – There needs to be a consistent, well-practiced approach to responding to all the different forms of crime. Part of that means that the shippers and fishers in the region need to know who to call to get an effective response. Regardless of how that process looks, it needs to work. 
  5. Trust – Technology is only part of the answer. Processes are only part of the answer. People on the water – fishermen, shippers, port operators and even recreational sailors – all need to know not only who to contact; they need to be able to trust that they will get a meaningful response and, at a minimum, not become the target of punitive or illicit action. All maritime actors – navies, coast guards, police forces, fishers, the maritime industry, NGOs and beyond – need to build the trust-based relationships that give them the confidence to share information and request assistance. 

Leveraging these two piracy incidents for insights shines a spotlight on a variety of needs and approaches to meeting them. Given how many other attacks have occurred in 2020 alone, further analysis of this variety could only prove beneficial. 

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.

Featured image: F/V Hai Lu Feng 11 at sea at the time of its re-capture by local authorities. (Image courtesy of Maritime Security Regional Coordination Centre for Western Africa (CRESMAO) and the Interregional Coordination Centre (ICC),

Distinguishing Rice from Wrong: Important Lessons from the Hamburg Port Drug Bust of 2020

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 USD. 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. A closer look at the movements of the vessel, however, helps clarify some of the confusion in this reporting.

This Windward image of the Jean Gabriel’s path between May 26, when the cocaine-filled rice shipment left Guyana, and June 27, a day after the vessel arrived in Hamburg, shows that the ship did not go near Guyana (visible between Venezuela and Suriname on the map): 

Track of CMA CGM Jean Gabriel from May 26 to June 27, 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

Furthermore, examining the port calls during that time, we can see the vessel stopped at the following ports on the following dates, none of which are remotely close to Guyana: 

Date: Port: Duration: 
May 27, 2020 Puerto San Antonio, Chile 2 Days
June 1, 2020 Callao, Peru 1 Day
June 8, 2020 Colon, Panama 11 Hours
June 10, 2020 Cartagena, Colombia 20 Hours
June 12, 2020 Caucedo Andres, Dominican Republic 1 Day
June 23, 2020 Rotterdam, Netherlands 2 Days
June 25, 2020 London, United Kingdom 1 Day
June 26, 2020 Hamburg, Germany 1 Day

Before trying to resolve the uncertainty concerning where the drugs were embarked on the ship, it is worth looking at what happened after Jean Gabriel called in Hamburg. As noted, some media reports, including industry journals, indicated that the drugs were “found onboard a containership docked in the port.” Looking at the movement of the vessel after arrival, however, suggests this was not the case. A day after arriving in Hamburg, the Jean Gabriel was already underway, heading to repeat the route to South America. The following Windward image is of the vessel’s path from June 24, just before it arrived in Hamburg, until August 10 when the story of the drug interdiction broke: 

Path of the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel from June 24 to August 10, 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

These two images, plus the list of port calls, cast serious questions about the accuracy of the reporting on this incident. Even the reports themselves are contradictory, some suggesting the drugs were found on the ship, others once it was in storage. By looking at the ship data on Windward, though, we can tell that the container with the cocaine-filled rice sacks was definitely not embarked in Guyana, and it is highly unlikely that the drugs were discovered while the container was still onboard. The vessel does not appear to have been delayed at all, indicating that the container came off as planned, validating the news stories detailing that the container had been in storage awaiting transshipment to its final destination of Poland before the drugs were discovered.

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. 

The reporting on this matter made it sound like the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel was involved or somehow responsible. 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.

That infrastructure is crucial to our economy and our way of life – goods of all sorts, including basic necessities, flow constantly around the world. Therefore, we must be cautious not to assume connections between what is found in a container and the vessel or line on which it is found. Denigrating shipping lines for inadvertently carrying drugs, rather than assisting them in countering the movement of narcotics, serves only to diminish the free flow of maritime commerce and provide exploitable opportunities for drug cartels. We tread that path to our own detriment.

The Container

Having shown that the Jean Gabriel never went to Guyana, 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. 

From following the movement of the vessel on Windward we can see, as was reported, that it left Guyana on May 26 and arrived in the Dominican Republic on June 7. 

Path of the MV Asiatic Wind from May 26 to June 7, 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

On this voyage, it called at the following ports: 

Date: Port: Duration: 
May 25, 2020 Georgetown, Guyana 1 Day
May 27, 2020 Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago 1 Day
May 29, 2020 Bridgetown, Barbados 16 Hours
June 4, 2020 Kingston, Port Bustamente, Jamaica 19 Hours
June 7, 2020 Caucedo Andres, Dominican Republic 1 Day

Given that we also know the port calls for the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel, 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 USD 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 USD 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. 


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.

Featured Image: Port of Hamburg, Germany. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)