Drug Trafficking in the Port of Rotterdam
Rotterdam is home to one of the biggest maritime ports in the world, and it serves as a gateway to the European consumer market, be it legal or illegal. This particular port, with a history stretching to the 14th century, is now responsible for servicing almost 30 000 seagoing vessels, or 8.6 million containers, resulting in 469 million tonnes of cargo annually. That is on average, 80 ships a day that requires unloading, refuelling and other maintenance. The sheer amount of goods that port authorities have to handle daily and the massive size of its facilities, make it a perfect ground for organised crime to operate an entry point to the European black market of drugs, weapons, and other contraband.
The Port of Rotterdam (PoR) is especially vulnerable to drug trafficking, leading to worries among the media and authorities alike, that the Netherlands may be on its way to becoming a “narco-state”. Due to the open border policy in the Schengen Area, which the Netherlands is a part of, anything that comes through the PoR is effectively free to move around, entering and exiting, the other 27 Member States. While the free movement of goods, in accordance with Article 26 of the TFEU, is immensely valuable for legitimate trade, it makes regional authorities’ jobs proportionally harder in the context of combating smuggling and trafficking.
As a result, the European Union and the United States have conducted numerous international maritime operations, such as “Martillo”  and “Lionfish III”  to try and stop drug smugglers in the Atlantic Ocean, before reaching European shores. In these efforts, a lot of coordination was done with the Latin American States, as it is often the case that organised criminal syndicates, responsible for manufacturing the drugs, are located there. This article, however, aims to inform the reader on what preventative measures are being taken closer to home – by the PoR authorities – to identify and seize any illegal substances smuggled into Europe on the merchant’s vessels. Often, authorities will partner with private actors, who suffer from drug traffickers using their containers and transport as ‘cocaine mules’. For instance, in October 2019, Australian authorities found over $200 million worth of Methamphetamine hidden amidst a shipment of Sriracha sauce.
At airports, passengers are required to pass through security with their luggage to ensure the safety of the airport and the general public. While these scans are labelled as a ‘security check’ they also double as a way to ensure that passengers are not travelling with prohibited or highly regulated substances. The same procedure applies to the cargo of the merchant vessels upon entering the PoR – it is subjected to long and close range types of x-ray scanning by the Dutch Customs to determine whether there are any drugs stashed among the legitimate goods. Checking every container manually takes time and costs that no stakeholder can afford, hence the process of scanning and inspection has been streamlined by introducing State Inspection Terminal or S.I.T. The PoR employs different ways of examining cargo, – mainly remote scanning of containers once they are unloaded and stacked in storage areas or by running them through a special tunnel. The scans are then analysed by the Dutch Customs Authorities that are trying to detect illegal substance by making sure that the contents of the cargo match the descriptions provided by the shipment companies. In instances where a container is marked during scans for suspicious goods by the authorities, it is brought to the S.I.T, where it undergoes further examination.
When entering a port, ships are subject to checks by the relevant port authorities, similar to the kind of controls occurring at inland borders. According to the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, which is responsible for overseeing the operations of the PoR, the port authorities have a full right to conduct searches of any ships that are entering its territory. Once onboard, operatives may examine specific parts of the ship and request masters of a vessel to open any closed place or container suspected of concealing contraband. If keys are not available, the authorities are authorised to use any means necessary and open the containers. However, a ports’ daily revenue is largely dependent on the number of ships it receives every day; consequently, if cargo vessels are held up in thorough searches, the port loses money. Being aware of this, the operatives seldom search for every individual container. In reality, searches are only limited to a few randomly picked containers, trusting that if those were in order, the rest are contraband-free as well.
In addition to conducting searches on ships within port’s maritime territory under the port’s administration, the operatives may be tasked to stop and examine any foreign commercial vessels that are inbound to Rotterdam, still quite a distance from the Dutch waters. However, in accordance with International Maritime Law, given that the ship is in international waters, to carry out such operation, the port authorities first have to receive permission from the flag State of a vessel (the State whose flag, the said ship is flying). As described previously, operatives then can carry on with a thorough search in addition to marking and sealing suspicious goods for further examination once in the port territory.
Asking information about the ship’s crew
It is not only containers and secret cupboards that create the possibility of drugs being smuggled into the PoR – people working for shipping companies that are willing to cooperate with smugglers are an essential part too. There are myriad of reasons why sailors and port workers, insiders within the port operations, may help smuggle cocaine in the Netherlands. Still, the most common ones seem to be financial hardships, peer pressure to get involved and a need to find additional funding for their drug addiction. Due to the socio-economic backgrounds of many port workers, they are susceptible to accepting bribes and assisting with smuggling of contrabands in exchange for ‘quick-cash’.
Knowing this, port authorities may ask the owners of the vessel to comply with a reasonable request to provide detailed information with regards to one or more crew members. The requested details may be about the crew member’s background information that is available to the employer, or sailor’s whereabouts. This is supposed to help responsible authorities to determine which crew members may be more likely to involve themselves in drug trafficking. In addition to employee information, authorities expect the companies to inform them about the movement of the ship’s crew once in the port, for example, whether new members have left or joined the ship.
Dutch Customs Diving Team
The inspections on the arriving merchant ships to the PoR are not only being done onboard amongst crew members and containers but under the waterline as well. When it comes to stashing drug packages, there is little in the way of smugglers ingenuity as they often choose the places that are hardest to reach. The task of detecting these ‘hidden stashes’ falls to the relatively new body – the Dutch Customs Diving Team (DCDT). It is a unique service for customs agencies as diving tasks are usually performed by police, fire departments, and military. Since those diving teams were too preoccupied with their tasks, in 2005, Dutch Customs Agency established a diving team trained to inspect the under the girth of ships and cargo were thrown overboard in pursuit of drugs, torpedoes, and the like. 
The main task of this team is to identify and confiscate illegal goods that have been transported underneath the ship, either on the vessel’s hull or inside ship’s spaces that can be reached only from underneath. Recently criminals involved in drug trafficking have started to stash their packages below the waterline: near the rudder, behind the propeller or in the bow thrusters. One of the most prevalent tactics of drug smugglers is fixing a torpedo-shaped pipe stuffed with smaller packages of cocaine to the vessel’s hull as such, DCDT ability to find it proves crucial. As DCDT consists of a group of fewer than 10 professionals, their effectiveness is limited to, at the best of circumstances, searching one cargo ship a day. To date, the divers have scored 15 below waterline seizures and over 50 instances of detecting clues to underwater drug trafficking.
DCDT and its operations are covered more extensively in our upcoming publication.
Cargo and port facility security
As a large part of critical infrastructure in the Netherlands is privatised the responsibility for what happens within the PoR is shared between the public and private stakeholders.  As such, successful cooperation between the two is one of the most critical aspects to ensuring that illegal substances and individuals involved in their smuggling the port facilities are successfully identified and Knowing this, shipment companies may approach the port authorities with a request to receive expert advice on how to improve their cargo security and handling procedures. According to Dutch authorities, such requests are always taken seriously, and adequate plans and procedures are developed. The examples of such cooperation provided in the Netherlands Regulatory Framework 228(82) Guidelines for Prevention of Smuggling Goods are:
- Controlling the access of private vehicles to port facilities and cargo stores.
- Restricting parking of all vehicles to a designated area that is remote from the active loading areas, so to obstruct the process of smuggling substances in and outside ships.
- Compiling a list of all individuals and their vehicles, that have regular access to port services and cargo stores and making sure that this list is available to the port authorities.
- In case that the port facility or a ship, has electronic security systems implemented, the authorities expect to have access to it once a reasonable request is provided.
- The access to a cargo area must only be permitted to individuals carrying an up to date permit and issued a daily pass. Besides, these pass numbers should be recorded and made available to the competent authorities if needed.
The shipping companies may also reach out to the port authorities asking for help in furthering the education of private security officers. This may be done through the provision of training and/or educational material supplied by the more experienced security experts working for authorities. The overall goal of this type of cooperation is to ensure that ship the shipping companies’ security teams could list the illicit trafficking of drugs in their ship’s risk assessments as a threat, develop procedures that would mitigate this risk and implement them. In addition, the port authorities expect companies to educate their personnel on the dangers of drug abuse and are open to assisting with that as well. The increase in professionalism among private actors would take away the pressure from the authorities that are already overwhelmed.
The PoR, being the most significant maritime port in Europe, serves as a lifeline for transcontinental trade, and logistics. Due to its importance, geographical location, and scale of its operations, it is also a haven for drug traffickers. There are many different ways, that authorities are aware of, how illegal substances may be smuggled into a port – from hiding stashes of cocaine amidst the legitimate goods shipped in the thousands of containers that arrive in Rotterdam each day, to hiding special packages of drugs below the container ships themselves. This article introduced a few of today’s countermeasures developed by the port authorities to tackle drug smuggling.
A ship nearing the docks of Rotterdam can expect to be a subject of a random onboard search by the port operatives. If the vessel’s flag State does not object, the searches can even be conducted on the in the international waters. As illustrated earlier, the problem is not one-sided. The problem is amplified and made it harder to address due to the allegedly rampant corruption. Humans are an essential part of drug trafficking. Therefore, ship captains and their employer companies are expected to provide authorities with information about the crew and workers, so that the potential collaborators with drug traffickers may be identified.
The vessel may undergo further examination by the Dutch Customs Diving Team members once they arrive at the port – a small group of operatives whose job is to make sure that any creative way smugglers may hide illegal goods below the waterline of tankers are identified. The cargo, on the other hand, is examined with the hi-tech scanners employed by the Dutch customs. In all of these countermeasures, including pre-emptive strategies, such as employee education, there exists, at least in theory, closer cooperation between the shipping companies and port authorities. It is vital to understand that this cooperation serves both ways. The authorities are sharing their experience on how to develop security measures with private actors with hopes that an increase in professionalism of shipment companies’ security is going to ease the pressure from their drug policing efforts.
This blogpost provided a comprehensive overview of the general issues related to drug trafficking through the PoR, as well as the countermeasures that port authorities and private stakeholders employ to tackle these problems. For the readers that have found this piece interesting, we would like to inform you that this article is going to form a part of a larger compendium. It will cover similar fields of interest with regards to port security, identify problems and propose solutions.
 Port of Rotterdam, “Facts & figures about the port”, (2019), https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/our-port/facts-figures-about-the-port; and The Guardian, “Netherlands becoming a narco-state, warn Dutch police”, (2018), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/netherlands-becoming-a-narco-state-warn-dutch-police
 The Guardian, “Netherlands becoming a narco-state, warn Dutch police”, (2018), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/netherlands-becoming-a-narco-state-warn-dutch-police
 Maciejewski, M., Ratcliff, C. “Free movement of goods” (2019), https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/38/free-movement-of-goods
 U.S. Southern Command, “Campaign Martillo”, (2020), https://www.southcom.mil/Media/Special-Coverage/Operation-Martillo/
 Interpol, “Operation Lionfish”, (2020), https://www.interpol.int/en/Crimes/Drug-trafficking/Operation-Lionfish
 CNN, “$200M meth haul smuggled in Sriracha bottles”, (2019), https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/30/australia/sriracha-meth-australia-intl-hnk-scli/index.html
 Port of Rotterdam, “State Inspection Terminal”, (2018), https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/doing-business/services/service-range/port-customs/state-inspection-terminal
 Port of Rotterdam, “Facts & figures about the port”, (2019), https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/our-port/facts-figures-about-the-port
 Eski, Yarin., & Buijt, R., “Dockers in drugs: Policing the illegal drug trade and port employee corruption in the Port of Rotterdam”, (2016), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313785054_Dockers_in_Drugs_Policing_the_Illegal_Drug_Trade_and_Port_Employee_Corruption_in_the_Port_of_Rotterdam
 Eski, Yarin, “Diving for dope’: Identity in submarine drug policing at the ‘maritime gateway to Europe”, (2019), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1477370819887513
 Eerste Kamer, “Verbinding verbroken?” https://kennisopenbaarbestuur.nl/media/254999/verbinding-verbroken.pdf
BBC, “Is the Netherlands becoming a narco-state?”, (2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50821542
Chalfin, Brenda, “Customs Regimes and The Materiality of Global Mobility: Governing the Port of Rotterdam”, (2007), http://abs.sagepub.com
CNN, “$200M meth haul smuggled in Sriracha bottles”, (2019), https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/30/australia/sriracha-meth-australia-intl-hnk-scli/index.html
Eerste Kamer, Verbinding verbroken?”, https://kennisopenbaarbestuur.nl/media/254999/verbinding-verbroken.pdf
Eski, Yarin, “Diving for dope’: Identity in submarine drug policing at the ‘maritime gateway to Europe”, (2019), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1477370819887513
Eski, Yarin., & Buijt, R., “Dockers in drugs: Policing the illegal drug trade and port employee corruption in the Port of Rotterdam”, (2016), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313785054_Dockers_in_Drugs_Policing_the_Illegal_Drug_Trade_and_Port_Employee_Corruption_in_the_Port_of_Rotterdam
European Union, “Consolidated version of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union” (2008), https://www.refworld.org/docid/4b17a07e2.html
Interpol, “Operation Lionfish”, (2020), : https://www.interpol.int/en/Crimes/Drug-trafficking/Operation-Lionfish
Maciejewski, M., Ratcliff, C. “Free movement of goods” (2019), https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/38/free-movement-of-goods
Ministry of Infrastructure and Water, “228(82) Guidelines for the prevention of smuggling of drugs”, (2020), https://puc.overheid.nl/nsi/doc/PUC_1586_14/1/
Port of Rotterdam, “Facts & figures about the port”, (2019), https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/our-port/facts-figures-about-the-port ; and The Guardian, “Netherlands becoming a narco-state, warn Dutch police”, (2018), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/netherlands-becoming-a-narco-state-warn-dutch-police
Port of Rotterdam, “Facts & figures about the port”, (2019), https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/our-port/facts-figures-about-the-port
Port of Rotterdam, “State Inspection Terminal”, (2018), https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/doing-business/services/service-range/port-customs/state-inspection-terminal
The Guardian, “Netherlands becoming a narco-state, warn Dutch police”, (2018), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/netherlands-becoming-a-narco-state-warn-dutch-police
U.S. Southern Command, “Campaign Martillo”, (2020), https://www.southcom.mil/Media/Special-Coverage/Operation-Martillo/
Image 1: State Inspection Terminal (Port of Rotterdam, 2018)
State Inspection Terminal (2018). Available at: https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/doing-business/services/service-range/port-customs/state-inspection-terminal.
Image 2: Port of Rotterdam (2016)
Rotterdam port tariffs will once again increase by less than the rate of inflation (2016). Available at: https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/news-and-press-releases/rotterdam-port-tariffs-will-once-again-increase-by-less-than-the-rate-of.
Image 3: Drugs seized at the port of Rotterdam (Public Prosecution Department, 2019)
Police on course to seize record amount of cocaine in Rotterdam in 2019 – DutchNews.nl (2019). Available at: https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/11/police-on-course-to-seize-record-amount-of-cocaine-in-rotterdam-in-2019/.