Cruise ship drug smuggling

Dr G Shreekumar Menon

We live in an age and in a society that has become addicted to luxuries and enjoyment. Young children are being pampered and mollycoddled without any limits by their parents. Man youngsters are leading, what is known as a ‘champagne lifestyle’, enjoying life to the hilt, splurging on expensive lifestyles, and impulse buying. We are seeing a new generation of youngsters getting used to a lifestyle of never-ending parties, eating exotic foods at expensive restaurants, splurging on imported fast cars, high-speed bikes, branded perfumes, branded clothing and of course sexy females. Social media is constantly promoting the new products flooding the market. But what these youngsters fail to realize is that life cannot be just one long story of luxurious experiences. All these extravagant habits need a constant infusion of funds. The day the funds dry up, the fabulous life style simply evaporates. Only one luxurious habit adheres faithfully- the esoteric consumption of narcotic drugs, that will send the person finally to jail, or hospital or grave.

Daily we watch on TV and read in the media, the arrests of many youngsters, film stars, fashion models and many others who have never done a decent day’s work in their life. Their decadent lifestyles will ensure that in the coming decades we are going to witness a large number of middle-aged people who are addicted to strong narcotic drugs.

Youngsters are on the look-out for safe hideouts to enjoy their drug consumption habit. Remote resorts, houseboats, jungle resorts and currently in the news is are cruise ship. India does not have many cruise ships plying, and the cost of a trip is pretty expensive. But it is a safe location where revellers can pursue their merry making away from the prying eyes of the law.

The Cruise ship that was raided and drugs seized by Narcotocs Control Bueau (NCB)

The current case of a rave party on a cruise ship and the alleged involvement of a son of a prominent film star, has put the spotlight on cruise ship parties. Drugs reported to have been seized by Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) are multiple banned drugs such as cocaine, MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy), mephedrone and charas
during the raid.

Cruise ships cross international and national jurisdictions, visiting many different ports on their voyage, hence are ideal for holding discreet drug parties, as travellers are in a vacation mood and eager for enjoyment and entertainment. Drug traffickers place drug couriers on board the cruise ship, and what better choice than glamourous models and starlets.

Cruise ships are routinely used for a variety of smuggling and illegal activities. Though they operate in a controlled environment and all passengers, crew, baggage and luggage are screened prior to boarding, searching for contraband drugs is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Though cruise lines are monitored by national and international security and law enforcement authorities to ensure passenger security, detection of contraband by physical checks is extremely difficult. Screening of luggage is done by a variety of methods including X-ray, magnetometer, and K9 (Police Dogs), but these are not fool-proof.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) also has substantial guidelines to prevent smuggling, but these are all violated across the globe. Drug smuggling by cruise ships is a low-cost, high-risk and potentially high-reward business model. The concealment possibilities on board a cruise liner and a container cargo vessel is limitless. Common places of concealment are vessel’s anchor compartment, ship hulls, vents along ship hulls, water inlets, fuel tanks, engine room, propellers, and store room. Containers filled with drugs are attached to the bottom of the ship hulls with rope so that illicit loads may be cut off at high sea if Customs authorities or Coast Guard get too close.

When cruise ships are used to smuggle drugs, it is very plausible that the crew may have no idea whatsoever that drugs are on board. Port staff may be involved, such as a stevedore agent who have access to many parts of the vessel and can move around without raising suspicion. Glamour girls and girls from the entertainment industry can act as perfect peddlers on board the ship as it will not arouse any suspicion.
Professional traffickers often target crew members and befriend them and lure them to trafficking in drugs.

Ship crew are much preferred by drug- traffickers, as they have specific access to many sensitive hiding places on board, for example tanks, enclosed spaces and storerooms. Machinery spaces are most suitable for secreting illicit material. Even if the crew member is not the actual courier, they can facilitate the passage of drugs on and off the ship.

Customs check of shipping vessels is a highly specialized job. All major Customs formations in India have a Rummaging & Intelligence department, which is tasked with the responsibility of checking all ocean-going vessels. In a typical rummage, the entire suspect vessel/ship has to be thoroughly searched for prohibited and restricted goods (viz. drugs, arms & ammunitions, counterfeit currency, pornographic materials, seditious literature and other goods which have not been declared), which have been concealed in various parts of the ship/vessel which include the engine room, the bridge, officers and crew quarters, cargo hatches, lockers, life boats, and panelling of cabins. The officers of the rummaging team have in law full access to each part of the ship/vessel and have the right to break open and search any place, box, etc. to which the access is denied or obstructed. However, it is not possible to do a hundred per cent check of an entire ship, whether cruise or cargo. Reliable information from an authentic source is needed for doing any detailed examination.

Drug couriers are known as ‘Mules’ among enforcement agencies. There is an increasing trend all over the globe to employ glamour girls, film stars and fashion models as mules. The advantage is that they tend to breeze through all checks because of their glamour aura. If they are VIP’s they are ushered through after a cursory check. Drug smuggling is a long and continuous occurrence and the endless battle against it will go on.

What should be more worrying for enforcement agencies is the prospect of weapons smuggling using celebrities and cruise ships. While examples of weapons smuggling on cruises are still not common, terror groups will certainly explore this new avenue.

Our enforcement agencies need to be strengthened and be on high alert.


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 shreemenon48@gmail.com

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