Record $148 million heroin bust made at UK port

Does container shipping have a drug problem? After a string of busts in the U.S. in recent months, attention has now switched to the U.K., where authorities have seized 1,279 kilograms of heroin with a street value of £130 million ($148 million).

The drugs were found Aug. 30 by officers from Border Force and the National Crime Agency (NCA) in a container stowed on the Maersk Gibraltar at the Port of Felixstowe.

“The smugglers had hidden the drugs within a cover load of towels, stitching the 1 kg blocks of heroin inside some of the towels,” said Jenny Sharp, Border Force assistant director at Felixstowe. “In total, it took my officers nearly six hours — working in the early hours of Saturday morning — to remove the drugs.”

After the heroin was seized, police returned the container to the vessel, which then continued to Antwerp, docked in the Belgian port city on Sept. 1 and was kept under surveillance by Dutch and Belgian law enforcement agencies. After it was unloaded, the box was tracked as it was trucked to a warehouse in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Upon arrival, officers moved in and arrested four people who were in the process of unloading the consignment.

“This is a record heroin seizure in the U.K. and one of the largest ever in Europe,” said Matt Horne, NCA deputy director of investigations. “It will have denied organized crime tens of millions of pounds in profits and is the result of a targeted, intelligence-led investigation, carried out by the NCA with international and U.K. partners.”

The 1.3 ton haul at Felixstowe followed the seizure of 398 kg of heroin from a vessel at the same U.K. gateway on Aug. 2.

Neither the NCA nor Border Force would comment when asked if Maersk had been fined or censured. An NCA spokeswoman said the “investigation is ongoing.”

The seizure was the second on a Maersk vessel in just a week; 23,368 kilos of fentanyl arriving from China were found on the Svendborg Maersk at the Port of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan, Mexico, on Aug. 23.

A Maersk spokesman told FreightWaves the shipping line was committed to conducting its business in a responsible and lawful manner throughout all aspects of vessel and shore operations.

“Maersk does not accept illegal cargo and has guidelines in place for screening and handling cargo bookings,” he added. “We proactively work with authorities to mitigate risks like these and will cooperate openly with relevant authorities during this investigation.”

As FreightWaves has detailed, the U.K. is not the only country reporting huge drug seizures on container vessels. The Port of Philadelphia in the U.S. was the scene of a record cocaine bust in June, the second U.S. drug bust this year involving a container ship operated by Mediterranean Shipping Company.

MSC released a statement that it “has a longstanding history of cooperating with U.S. federal law enforcement agencies to help disrupt illegal narcotics trafficking and works closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“Unfortunately, shipping and logistics companies are from time to time affected by trafficking problems,” it added.

The rising tide of drug smuggling in large quantities using containers has long been predicted as a likely consequence of globalization.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) issued a policy paper in 2012 predicting the global shipping industry would be used for the transport of narcotics, arms and other illicit cargo. The authors, Hugh Griffiths and Michael Jenks, pointed to a particular risk in future years for the container shipping industry.

“Maritime trade is one of the pillars of globalization. As new economic powers emerge and new trading links are forged, maritime trade will continue to expand,” they wrote. “Understandably, governments will continue to weigh the benefits of stricter controls on the shipping industry against the significant costs of jeopardizing their countries’ involvement in the maritime trade.”

According to the SIPRI report, “Maritime trade has always included a share of illicit activity. However, the advent of containerization in particular has given maritime traffickers unprecedented opportunities to integrate their activities into the global supply chain. 

“Containerization provides trafficking with the same cost- and time-saving transport mechanisms that have allowed the world’s multinational companies to deliver their products quickly and cheaply, penetrate new markets and expand their global customer base,” the report said.

“It is likely that, at least as long as the trend toward containerization continues in the licit portion of maritime trade, containers will increasingly be used for many sorts of trafficked commodities — and mainstream companies will increasingly become unwitting accomplices of the traffickers.”