High Stakes on the High Seas: Curbing the Cocaine & Fentanyl Flood

Border Security & Intelligence

What’s inside?

    Curbing the Fentanyl flood is a massive challenge for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other law enforcement agencies worldwide. This blog post outlines the challenges, explains why it’s so different from cocaine smuggling, and offers a roadmap forward with four necessary components for stopping the fentanyl flood.  

    Prevalence and Detection Difficulties 

    UCLA-led research found that U.S. overdose deaths involving both fentanyl and stimulants increased more than 50-fold since 2010: from 0.6% in 2010, to 32.3% in 2021. 

    “We’re now seeing that the use of fentanyl together with stimulants is rapidly becoming the dominant force in the US overdose crisis,” said lead author Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. 

    One of the major difficulties in stopping maritime Fentanyl smuggling is that most of the chemicals and tools needed to make the dangerous drug are actually legal. They can come into Mexico, where the finished product is made, and then they are smuggled across the Mexican-U.S. border. 

    A shipment voyage from China to Mexico experiencing a 23-day delay based on Windward Maritime AI™ Predicted ETA and exceptions.

    The way to identify the movement of containers suspected to have fentanyl is to look at the bill of lading (BoL) and check for anomalies related to the consignee, shipper, labels, type of businesses involved in the trade, weight, etc.

    Similar in Scope to the Cocaine Issue in Europe

    ShippingWatch notes that Europe is “being flooded by a tsunami of cocaine,” with international gangs using shipping companies and ports, among other methods. Insurance Marine News reported that Spanish police seized eight tons of cocaine in Algeciras on a container ship from Suriname. “The cocaine haul was one of the largest-ever intercepted in Spain.” 

    A recent report from the EU’s drug agency (EMCDDA) and Europol stated that the EU’s illicit drug market is worth at least €31 billion and cocaine is worth €11.6 billion. 

    Windward has examined past cocaine busts, based on insights from our Maritime AI™ platform. A three-ton cocaine bust off the Western Sahara coast was analyzed in January 2023. Windward’s AI models identified and flagged this vessel as “high risk” for potential smuggling a few weeks before the bust, based on its illicit behavior and engagement in deceptive shipping practices. These included: 

    • A blacklisted flag (Togo) – Togo is currently on the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) black list 
    • Multiple identity changes
    • Irregular business structure – such as frequent ownership changes (which can indicate an attempt to obscure ownership), companies based in countries known to be tax shelters, organizations with one vessel, etc. 
    • Multiple name and ownership changes 

    More behavioral (illicit behavior) changes: 

    • First-time visits – deviations from the vessel’s history can be indicative of smuggling 
    • Unusual loitering, which is often related to dark activities concealing ship-to-ship transfers

    We also looked at a vessel that engaged in location (GNSS) manipulation in October 2023 as part of Ireland’s largest-ever drug seizure. The Irish vessel exhibited an inefficient/uneconomical sailing path between May 30-August 19, 2023. The red triangles in the zoomed-in area (see the image below) show where the vessel slowed down. This, plus the zigzagging pattern, are clear indications of loitering.

    The zigzagging pattern 

    While sailing in Guyana’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on August 22, the Matthew appeared to again loiter, but it was actually engaged in location (GNSS) manipulation. This is the first drug smuggling case Windward confirmed that featured location (GNSS) manipulation. This means that transnational organized crime (TOC) groups now possess that knowledge, in addition to state actors. 

    The vessel ended its location (GNSS) manipulation and resumed legitimate transmission on September 7, updating its destination to the port of Gdansk, Poland. The vessel then began crossing the North Atlantic Ocean.

    The below image shows Matthew’s sailing path from August 19-September 7, including location (GNSS) manipulation. The circular path shown in the zoomed-in area would be impossible for a vessel of Matthew’s size, raising suspicions (why would the vessel travel in a circle?).

    Satellite overlay shows the vessel was not where it claimed to be (spoofing). Source: Planet Labs.  

    Tackling This Massive Challenge 

    An extremely interesting article in U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Frontline Digital Magazine detailed the massive challenge of stopping fentanyl from flooding into the U.S. 

    “In my 30 years as a customs official, the trafficking of synthetic illicit drugs like fentanyl is one of the toughest, most daunting challenges I have ever seen,” said CBP Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner Troy Miller. “…And we know what works. Intelligence-driven operations, relentless, targeting people, partnerships, and technology.”

    CBP Commissioner Miller is 100% correct: “intelligence-driven operations” are critical, because stopping fentanyl can be more challenging than other illegal drugs, such as cocaine.  

    Artificial intelligence should be the foundation for going beyond generic maritime domain awareness to detecting the latest deceptive shipping practices and benefiting from predictive analytics to detect smuggling. 

    Tracking maps can be inaccurate, or information obtained too late, because some ships that appear to be law-abiding and do not appear on any sanctions lists (yet) are not really as they seem. Some are using techniques, such as location (GNSS) manipulation or multiple ship-to-ship (STS) engagements, to obscure their origins (or the origins of their cargo), current location, and destination, which helps them evade detection while engaged in illicit activities.

    4 Necessary Components for Stopping the Fentanyl Flood

    Stopping fentanyl from entering the U.S. involves the use of advanced data analysis techniques to understand and predict drug trafficking patterns, identify high-risk shipments, and target enforcement efforts more effectively. Here’s are four necessary components:

    1. Collection of diverse data sources: agencies gather data from various sources, including shipping records, travel data, financial transactions, communication intercepts, and previous enforcement activities. This data can reveal patterns, trends, and networks related to drug trafficking.

    2. Predictive modeling and risk assessment: using machine learning and statistical modeling, analysts can predict which shipments, routes, or individuals are most likely to be involved in fentanyl trafficking. Risk assessment tools evaluate the probability of illicit activity based on factors such as origin, destination, shipping methods, and known associates.

    3. Network analysis: by analyzing relationships and connections between individuals and organizations, authorities can uncover drug trafficking networks. This helps in identifying key players, understanding organizational structures, and targeting efforts to dismantle these networks.

    4. Real-time analytics and decision support: data analytics tools can provide real-time insights to frontline officers and decision-makers. For example, they might receive alerts about high-risk shipments arriving at a port of entry, enabling them to conduct targeted inspections.

    The Importance of a Good AI Model

    Understanding what to look for and where to look can be a real challenge. 

    Windward’s Smuggling Risk model aims to identify vessels that are at the highest risk of being involved in smuggling activities. It does this by evaluating each vessel daily and flagging those with the highest risk. The model is constantly updated following drug busts as part of a machine learning program. 

    Users can also leverage Maritime AI™ to learn and adapt. If one illicit actor is caught employing a new technique or tactic, it is likely that others are doing the same. By reverse engineering smugglers’ route and tactics, and considering the port of origin and port of destination, law enforcement agencies and coast guards can use Windward’s new Sequence Search capability to look for a sequence of actions. They may find other vessels engaged in drug smuggling. 

    Deceptive shipping practices constantly evolve. Staying up to the date on the cat-and-mouse game is crucial. 

    Sharing is Caring

    Windward’s data is unclassified, meaning law enforcement teams can share vessel profiles or their investigations with other personnel or agencies, making it easier to collaborate on complex  and quickly evolving missions. It is possible to share all generated insights by using vessel reports, shareable links and in-platform comments.

    The law enforcement operation to detain the vessel involved in the Ireland cocaine bust was performed by three different intelligence and law enforcement bodies across Europe. The required information sharing and collaboration to generate a common operating picture can only be produced by a Maritime AI™ platform. 

    Windward has a proven track record with the world’s leading defense and law enforcement agencies, including coast guards.

    A Multi-Source Approach Brings Multiple Benefits 

    A problem for national intelligence, defense, and law enforcement organizations – as well as many others throughout the maritime ecosystem who are required to detect, identify, and monitor vessels – is that no approach or technology can serve as a single source of truth and provide a holistic view of risk. 

    The fentanyl and other illegal drugs scourge is widespread and complex. There’s no magic bullet, unfortunately, but the right technology and collaboration can help significantly improve current efforts. 

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