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Drug Smuggling Activities & Counter Narcotics


The UN 1961 Convention deemed more than 100 narcotic medications to be subjects of supervision. The comprehensive list contains the opioids mentioned above, but it also includes plant-based substances (such as cannabis, coca, and cocaine) and synthetic narcotics (such as methadone and pethidine). Besides supervising such drugs, the 1961 Convention also aimed to combat and limit their possession, consumption, production, commerce, distribution, import, and export through coordinated international intervention (United Nations, n.d.). With this convention, the International Narcotics Control Board tried to limit the control of such drugs only for medical use (UN, 1962).

It should be noted that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies narcotics as drugs known to help release pain and those known to dull the senses. These drugs are mainly based on opium, opium derivates, and their semi-synthetic substitutes. To take away some confusion, those drugs are today classified as “Opioids”. Examples of such opioids include heroin, codeine, morphine, methadone, fentanyl, OxyCodin, and others (DEA, 2020). Furthermore, the DEA categorized the other drug types into five distinct categories depending on the drug’s potential for abuse and acceptance for medical use (DEA, n.d.).

The rapid communication and transport of information that defines Today’s society led to a globalized nature of drug smuggling. This phenomenon allowed the emergence of new bizarre and complex (or ingenious) ideas of drug trafficking in the international and national realms. With these new techniques used by drug traffickers, Counter Narcotics strategies and reports emerged trying to aid the fight and reveal the hiding spots of such drugs. One example of such a report is the Dryad Global Counter Narcotics Report. This report mentions that drug producers continue their activities by targeting commercial vessels, traveling across Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia, together with their crews to transport their drug supplies through multiple stopovers and transit points (Dryad Global, 2021). The most used method is to conceal the drugs within the cargo onboard the ship, but there are also more complex methods. An example of such a method involves containers packed with drugs being attached to the bottom of ship hulls by using rope (Dryad Global, 2021). On the other hand, incidents involving MSC Gayane and MSC Carlotta are examples of shipping crew members or port staff facilitating trafficking operations. For more hiding spots, Dryad Global added an image that illustrates most of the potential hiding spots.

Picture 1. Likely Hiding spots in commercial and cargo ships

While still on the topic of transporting drugs by using the water, in the Pacific and the Caribbean, drug smugglers reportedly use submarines. They build those narco-submarines in workshops hidden along the Caribbean coast and the jungle of Western Colombia. Usually, special forces surveil such artisanal workshops while other counter-narcotics troops aid them by using submarines, patrol aircraft, long-range drones, and by cooperating with partner nations. The last four try to track the narco-submarines that reached the waters and other maritime vessels. Examples of such troops are the Walrus Class submarines sent by the Dutch Navy in the Caribbean, the P-8A Poseidon Maritime Aircraft deployed by the U.S. Navy, and the maritime surveillance version of the Predator-B drone operated by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (Sutton, 2020).

Picture 2. Rare Electric Narco Submarine Seized in Colombia - USNI News

Some other drug traffickers are also known for using pregnant women, women with implants, babies, and people using wheelchairs. The case of the Columbian pregnant woman is one of the most famous ones. The woman, reportedly, attempted to traffic cocaine by swallowing small latex packets containing the drug. Unfortunately for her, the pouch ruptured inside her stomach, which caused her to die of cocaine poisoning (Weimer, 1991). Other women used other methods, such as placing the pouches in fake pregnancy bellies, hiding the drug in their hair extensions or wigs, or hiding the drugs inside their private areas, such as inside their breast implants. Some parents, presumably, offered up their babies for drug smuggling in return for money or drugs. Inside the baby formula cans, traffickers would store the liquefied heroin and cocaine (UPI, 2001).

Animals were also not spared from being used by drug traffickers. Donkeys were reportedly used to smuggle drugs by hiding the substance in their vaginas or by training them to smuggle the drugs on their own because of their intelligence and capability to carry heavy objects. In one instance, the traffickers left the donkeys to starve in one city for four days, after which they moved the donkeys to a different city, where they were fed upon arrival and starved for another four days. After the second starvation, the donkeys traveled back to the original city, where the process would repeat itself three or four more times. This “training” allowed the drug traffickers to transport the cargo on the donkeys without having to supervise them along the way. When the law enforcement troops discovered the donkey trail, they found the drugs but no sign of the traffickers. Of course, they let the donkey trail reach its destination and arrested the men found at the usual feeding spot. Other animals used for drug smuggling in parts of the world, such as Latin America, include pigeons, cattle, cats, mice, and snakes. For cattle and snakes the drugs were usually placed inside the animals, but for cats and pigeons usually, pouches are placed around their bodies because they can carry more drugs. Regarding the mice, inmates in prisons would use them to smuggle drugs from one cell block to another (Bleszynska, 2021).

One last example of a drug trafficking technique used imposes a new inspection by the border police of most states on cargo transports coming in. In 2019, the Spanish found 785 packages, each containing one kilogram of cocaine, hidden inside fake rocks. The traffickers arrested were part of an organization composed of both Venezuelan and Colombian citizens, and they used a shipment of 188,000 kg of a stone mixture to smuggle their drugs. This shipment was supposed to pass the border by truck transportation. The picture below shows the Policia Nacional officers laying down the found cocaine pouches and the rock pile from which they were retrieved (McManus, 2019).

This list is not complete, More drug smuggling techniques used by traffickers and counter-narcotics methods developed against them will emerge in the future due to the globalized nature of today’s society. Methods used by drug traffickers on one side of the world can influence others from another side. Therefore, counter-narcotics must also look in all areas of the globe for reference when trying to identify possible methods used in their own territory. More drug smuggling methods can be found or developed in the future, and the nature of countering them must also change alongside them.

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