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Effective techniques To sniff out contraband


By William Lusk

Director of Operations, Homeland Security Outlook


As the methods used by drug smugglers become ever more diverse, law enforcement agencies in the Caribbean are looking to cutting-edge ways of detection. But simple, common-sense techniques can be invaluable, too, says William Lusk, Director of Operations, Homeland Security Outlook.

Every day, law enforcement and government agencies across the Caribbean Basin are working together to stop the flow of contraband such as illicit drugs and weapons. Marijuana and cocaine in particular, usually destined for the streets of the United States and Europe, are frequently smuggled using conveyances such as commercial and private aircraft, semi-submersibles and shipping containers. Coupled with high motivation and increased sophistication, the threat from smugglers is growing.

Commercial ships transiting the Caribbean are particularly attractive vehicles to transport illicit cargoes and there have been many instances where ships and their crew, rightly or wrongly, have been detained and held responsible for illegal items found onboard. Substantial fines, interrupted cargo operations, lengthy imprisonment and even vessel seizure can result if drugs are found onboard. In one such incident in January 2015 a cargo vessel transiting from Guyana to Spain was intercepted by authorities and yielded 120 kg of cocaine, valued at US$ 10 million, under the wooden base of a container flat rack. The vessel’s captain and crew were arrested.

To avoid such unpleasant circumstances, ship masters and vessel security officers must not only remain vigilant but also employ several common-sense techniques and cutting-edge technologies that can help locate contraband onboard, particularly during calls to South American and Caribbean ports preceding arrival into the US and Europe.



Although there is no way to fully mitigate the risks, certain techniques can be employed that will help lower the probability that your vessel will inadvertently become a drug mule.

The first and most critical questions to ask are: 

  • What is my plan?

  • Does the vessel security plan confirm to the ISPS standard?

  • When was the last time the plan was exercised, reviewed and updated?

An exercise itself does not need to be costly in expense or time, but can be simply performed as a five-minute table-top interview with a crew member. Asking how the crew member would react in a given situation not only tests if the security plan would be followed, but it could also expose flaws. The key is to understand the security plan, drill often – and follow it. 

To minimize risk of a crew member actively partaking in the smuggling of contraband, ensure that there is clear company policy about drugs and that potential consequences of violation are conveyed. Company messaging can be simple: the risk of complicity to drug smuggling is not worth the reward.

Visual deterrence, both at anchor and while docked, is critical to help mitigate the risk of unwanted contraband from being placed onboard. The two easiest methods to enhance visual deterrence are to establish roaming patrols and to use bright lighting around the vessel.

Increasingly creative, parasitic containers are sometimes found bolted or welded onto sections of a ship under water such as stabilizers, thrusters and rudders. These containers may be installed and retrieved by divers of a smuggling ring. Police dive teams may check vessels on occasion to ensure there is no parasitic contraband, but the job is difficult as they fight currents, low visibility and disorientation.


The technological solution to this problem is the remotely operated vehicle or ROV. These vehicles are low weight (around 15 lb) and low maintenance and feature powerful sonar and lighting to sweep the hull of a vessel with no risk to a human operator. According to Mark Fleming, defense business development manager for VideoRay: “Intelligence efforts can identify gaps and anticipate threats, but without technological superiority in conducting rapid and thorough searches it is difficult to take action on this intelligence.”

As an example, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago has made significant resources available to the nation’s coast guard to fight illegal drugs; and among the tools at its disposal are ROVs.

Another tool that can almost literally sniff contraband is the MINI Z system developed by American Science & Engineering. This hand-held scanner provides fast and realtime imaging to detect currency, drugs and explosives in hard-to-reach locations behind non-metallic surfaces. The device’s battery operation, wireless communication and scanning speed of 15 cm per second makes it a fast and appealing method of sweeping an area for suspected contraband.