Can ocean surveillance and patrolling curb drug-trafficking?

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

The Arabian Sea has been one of the many avenues for the rapid rise of global trade and services butconversely has also been a ready pathway for the actionof many transnational organised crime groups. Curbing these transnational groups has been a crucial priority for both coastal and landlocked States across the globe as they pose a threat not only to national security but also to the legal trade and commerce across the globe.

Majority of the illicit activities at sea are usually inter-linked with the regular licit traffic. Hence it isextremely difficult to detect such type of cases.

Let us, for example, visit and traverse the route of the recent Rupees 21,000/ crores seizure effected at Mundra Port, by Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), which also happens to be the world’s largest seizure of drugs. Information presently disclosed in public domain indicates that the contraband emanated from Kandahar in Afghanistan from a company named Hassan Hussain Limited. It made its initial foray into the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, by the land route. From there the
journey began to Mundra Port in Gujarat, India, declared as ‘talc stones. The intended recipient was Aashi Trading Company in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh.

Let us explore this route to understand the security architecture prevailing, and the likely legal impediments that a container cargo containing contraband will have to encounter.

Kandahar is under the direct control of the Taliban, and the consignment would have therefore proceeded to the Iranian Port of Bandar Abbas with minimal checks and balances. The Taliban would have extorted their commission, and allowed the consignment to proceed to the Port of Bandar Abbas. The Taliban, would have for sure, known about the clandestine cargo, and its intended final destination.

Bandar Abbas Port is an entirely different theatre of operation. Iran’s main naval base is located at Bandar Abbas. The complex hosts a missile site where Chinese- built cruise missiles such as the CSS-N-2 Silkworm, HY-2 Seersucker and C-801 Sardine are tested, assembled, manufactured, and upgraded. The Revolutionary Guard Corps protects the complex with HAWK, SA-5 and SA-2 air-defense missiles.

Intelligence observers estimate that Iran generally keeps eight SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missile batteries stationed near Bandar Abbas, as well as at least 12 Silkworm anti-ship missile sites around Bandar Abbas and Kharg Island. The military complex also houses Iran’s fleet of Chinese-made Houdong fast missile boats. Experts estimate that Iran has armed approximately twenty of these craft with Saccade C-802 missiles. It is into this high-security environment that the contraband entered smoothly, we have to presume that it was not detected at all, thereby putting a big question mark on the level of security prevailing there.

It is an entirely different story if there was active connivance of the authorities in routing the consignment to India.

Shahid Rajaee Port, Bandar Abbas, has a Customs facility spanning a massive area of 4800 hectares of land. This port has Iran’s largest container terminal. The port is a Special Economic Zone due to its strategic location. It has connections to 80 well-known ports with 35 container lines. All terminals at Shahid Rajaee Customs have up-to-date facilities and boasts of 40 separate docks.

The contraband consignment encountered no problems whatsoever at the high-security Bandar Abbas Port and through the massive Customs facility without any hitch.

The next leg of the journey would cover the Gulf of Hormuz, and thereafter into the Arabian Sea.

The Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea are intensely patrolled by navies of various countries, as well as joint patrolling.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 (UNCLOS), sets out the legal framework applicable to activities in the oceans, including countering illicit activities at sea. On 27 November 1997 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted Resolution A.872 (20), which contains Guidelines for the Prevention and
Suppression of the Smuggling of Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursor Chemicals on ships engaged in international maritime traffic. This was revoked and replaced by the Revised Guidelines for the Prevention and Suppression of the Smuggling of Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Precursor Chemicals on Ships engaged in International Maritime Traffic. In addition, IMO works closely with other international
organizations such as the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), on matters concerning drug smuggling on board ships.

The Djibouti Code of Conduct (2017) covers illegal maritime activities in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. These activities include: (a) Human trafficking and smuggling, (b) Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, (c) Trafficking in narcotics and psychotropic substances. (d) Arms trafficking, (e) Illegal trade in wildlife, (f) Crude oil theft, and (g) Illegal dumping of toxic waste. A revision was signed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 12 January 2017 and it became known as the Jeddah Amendment to Djibouti Code of Conduct 2017 (DCoC). So far 16 of the 20 DCoC signatory States have signed the Jeddah Amendment. They are: Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania and Yemen.

India has joined the Djibouti Code of Conduct/ Jeddah Amendment, as Observer, along with Japan, Norway, UK and the US as Observers following the high-level meeting of the Djibouti Code of Conduct/ Jeddah Amendment (DCOC/JA) held virtually on 26 August 2020.

Under the Code, which became effective from the date it was signed, signatories declared their intention to co-operate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of transnational organized crime in the maritime domain, maritime terrorism, and other illegal activities at sea.

In supporting the implantation of the code of conduct, IMO has developed strong partnerships with key implementing partners including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the European Union; United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM), Canadian Coast Guard, the One Earth Future Foundation’s Stable Seas project, the Institute for Security International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Mohammed Bin Nayef Academy of Marine Science and Security Studies (Saudi Arabia), Djibouti Regional Training Centre, British Peace Support Team (Africa), and NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Centre (NMIOTC, Greece).

In addition to the above, there are platforms like the Indian Ocean Forum on Maritime Crime of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Further, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) is a multinational maritime partnership, which exists to uphold the International Rules-Based Order (IRBO).

It is a 33-nation coalition of Combined Maritime Forces and is based in Bahrain established to monitor, board, inspect, and stop suspect shipping to pursue the “Global War on Terrorism”.

Countries presently contributing to CTF-150 include Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Pakistan, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other nations that have participated include Italy, India, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Thailand and Turkey. The command of the task force rotates among the different participating navies, with commands usually lasting between four and six months. The task force usually comprises 14 or 15 ships.

Inspite of such a formidable force operating in the Arabian sea, this massive contraband consignment sailed through effortlessly, to reach its destination at Mundra, Gujarat State, India.

The smooth transit through a huge phalanx of naval forces is because the patrolling at sea is to interdict unidentified vessels. The targets are usually small fishing vessels, and small craft. which may be carrying contraband. The big container ships and cargo ships ply without interruption, as they have authorized permissions and identities. It is these vessels containing licit cargo, that are made use of by terror groups and traffickers to clandestinely carry contraband cargo. It is simply impossible for any Navy to apprehend a Container Ship, and physically check the cargo. Hence the contraband cargo has a smooth sail from the country of origin to the point of destination.

The next and final entry is into the Port of Mundra. India has around 15 lakh containers and this itself is not sufficient for our import-export traffic. There is heavy pressure on the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Finance – Customs, for quick clearance. A shipload of containers is expected to be cleared within 16 to 24 hours.

In FY 2020-21, Mundra port alone handled 144.4 million tons (MT) of cargo. The port handles dry cargo, liquid cargo, crude cargo, and containers. Mundra port is also a special economic zone (SEZ). SEZs are designated duty-free enclaves in India where the Indian Customs law does not apply. It was from this Mundra port that on 16 September 2021 the DRI, on prior information, seized the world’s biggest seizure of narcotic drugs valued at a mind-boggling Rupees twenty-one thousand crores. This seizure has raised many legal issues apart from the threat to national security. A total of eight persons including four Afghan nationals, one Uzbek and three Indians have been arrested so far. A special Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Court in Gujarat has directed the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) to investigate several aspects of this case including the manner in which the Port is administered. Many issuesrelating to national security, cargo clearance modalities, Customs checks, including coastal and blue water patrolling will come up for the Court’s detailed scrutiny in the coming months.

Concealment in containers is happening very intelligently, taking advantage of the fact that only 2% to 10% of containers worldwide undergo inspection.

Only 5% of all containers shipped to US ports are physically inspected. This figure is estimated to be still lower in Europe. In India also, 100% check of containers is impossible. The thrust of the Government and all stakeholders on expeditious clearance of cargo, results in low level of examination and acceptance of declarations by importers at face value. And people wonder why there is trouble eliminating drug trafficking, arms trafficking and human trafficking.

Had it not been for the timely information received by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the prompt interception, the consignment would have smoothly proceeded to its final destination –
Vijayawada. The fact that none of the enforcement and intelligence agencies from Mundra Port to Vijayawada had any inkling of the contraband likely to transit through their jurisdictions, raises several security questions and concerns.

From the month of March 2021 there has been a spurt in the movement of narcotics in the Arabian sea region. The American exit from Afghanistan is reckoned as a major factor contributing to this trend. The gradual easing of COVID-19 related restrictions with consequent increase in maritime traffic density, is also another contributor of this trend. Major drugs seized included Methamphetamine, Cannabis, Heroin and Khat. The seizure of large quantities of methamphetamine during the recent months remains a concern for the region, including a single seizure of 55,836 kg by Omani authorities. Indian Coast Guard made twin drug seizures, and in one case seized five AK 47 rifles with 1000 rounds of ammunition, apart from drugs, from foreign fishing vessels, off Minicoy Island, Lakshadweep, India.

The Government needs to have a comprehensive reviewof the existing maritime patrolling at sea and the quality and quantity of Customs checks at various ports, including those designated as Special Economic Zones.

The author Dr G Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) Ph. D (Narcotics), is

  • Former Director General National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence India
  • Fellow, James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, USA.
  • Fellow, Centre for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia, USA 
  • Public Administration, Maxwell School of Public Administration, Syracuse University, U.S.A.
  • AOTS Scholar, Japan

Dr G Shreekumar Menon can be contacted at

One comment

  1. Currently almost all the infrastructure facilities – road, rail, ports, airport, etc are being privatised and the same will have some telling effects in the growth of such dirty businesses. Private parties in connivance with criminals at such infrastructure facilities will encourage more and more narcotics business in the days ahead until and unless they are not controlled properly.


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