Rolling Stone magazine would dub them ‘the worst cocaine smugglers of all time’. In late August 2016, Isabelle Lagace and Melina Roberge, two Canadian women in their early twenties travelling on a Sea Princess cruise around the Pacific Rim, were arrested by police in Australia for attempting to smuggle over 95kg of cocaine into the port of Sydney.

Although authorities there had been on the lookout for Canadian drug syndicates attempting to smuggle cocaine into the country, the two women had hardly bothered to hide their connection to one particular criminal organisation. Not only had Lagace and Roberge poorly stuffed large pouches of the drug into their suitcase, but the authorities had also noted that their itinerary took in several ports on the South American coast known for international drugs trafficking – a fact the two had advertised to the world with exotic posts on Instagram.

New opportunities

The women’s crimes are not unique. Last year saw a long succession of headlines showcasing significant drug seizures aboard cruise ships the world over. In May, seven port workers in Miami were imprisoned for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine. It followed another case, four months earlier, in which two crew members from a Norwegian cruise ship were arrested in New Orleans after concealing drugs in their clothing – more specifically, inside what was described in the subsequent criminal complaint to the US District Court as a “pair of underwear that had a compartment sewn into the crotch area”.

More common, however, have been incidents involving passengers.

Last summer, four drug mules were caught by customs with “bras and girdles stuffed with pouches of cocaine” after stepping off a Royal Caribbean cruise in Jamaica. In January 2016, another six cruise passengers were arrested for attempting to smuggle 11kg of cocaine, hidden in ten packages inside a piece of luggage, into the port of San Juan.

“Smugglers are always looking for different means of moving stuff around,” says Gerry Northwood, maritime security consultant with MAST and a former captain in the Royal Navy. Most of Northwood’s career has been spent pursuing criminals on the high seas, from intercepting opportunistic gun runners on patrol boats off Northern Ireland during the Troubles to leading counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean as the commander of HMS Liverpool. For Northwood, the very fact that traffickers would choose to smuggle their cargo on cruise ships is testament to their sly entrepreneurship.

“They’re always looking for different routes, different methods,” he says. “I think what’s quite interesting about the case you see with the Princess Cruises vessel is that law-enforcement agencies were also quite wary of passengers who were taking long trips around the Pacific area so, clearly, that was that a known means by which people might choose to establish a route for moving contraband around. If you go back into the history of narcotics smuggling in the Far East, you see ships and passengers being used as means of moving illicit goods around. It’s not unusual. Using cruise lines is just an extension of that.”

CSI San Juan

Drug smuggling is not just a threat to the security of the Far East. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, Special Agent Brent Iglehart combats the efforts of drugs gangs to smuggle marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the US on a daily basis. Assigned to the Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, Iglehart is well acquainted with the lengths traffickers are prepared to go to in order to ship their product to market.

“Puerto Rico is an entry point into the continental US and a stopping-off point to Europe,” he explains. “Drug-trafficking organisations are creative in moving their merchandise. It can be anything from fast boats along the shore to airlines and commercial containers. They’ll exploit whatever they feel the weakest link in the chain might be. I guess that brings us to cruise ships.”

The main thing to remember, says Iglehart, is that passenger liners are not broadly considered to be soft targets by drug traffickers. The loading and storage of the product on the boat each pose their own problems.

“Keep in mind that, on a cruise ship, your passengers are limited in the amount of luggage they can carry,” Iglehart explains. Lower volume spells higher costs relative to the risk involved in transportation, although smuggling cocaine – which can be packed into kilogram-sized ‘bricks’ – can minimise this problem somewhat. “All those articles are screened, too, so there are certain limitations. It’s just as far as the physical capacity that they’re able to transport it at any given time.”

Using cruise ships to smuggle narcotics is not as appealing or significant as, say, the use of fast boats, which can be loaded to the brim with a wider variety of hard drugs and only need to evade the coastguard once. In Iglehart’s experience, most seizures tend to involve quantities limited to what could only be defined as personal use – “a marijuana cigarette or two”, which would, perhaps, only be discovered thanks to a cruise ship’s zero-tolerance policy.

"Drug-trafficking organisations are creative in moving their merchandise. It can be anything from fast boats along the shore to airlines and commercial containers. They’ll exploit whatever they feel the weakest link in the chain might be."

As the headlines show, however, seizures of multiple ‘bricks’ among passengers – invariably mules, contracted for a single job by a professional drug trafficker – have persisted. The capture of these passengers, often desperate or reckless individuals in need of short-term cash, is symptomatic of smuggling organisations’ larger approach to their business.

“If I were a drug trafficker, I might want to periodically send my contraband through different mechanisms to see if I could get through,” explains Iglehart. “And, periodically, you would want to test what the enforcement or security of the various transportation avenues are. One of those would be cruise lines, and so it’s not unheard of that someone would periodically try to do this.”

Places to hide

While most seizures of narcotics that do occur on cruise ships invariably involve individual mules, there are other ways to take advantage of this unique form of transport. One is through the ship stores.

“The problem the cruise industry has is that the vessels it operates are vast, shifting around large numbers of people – all individual two-legged cargo – and all the kit, baggage, stores, food and everything that comes with that,” says Northwood. “So, there’s an enormous movement of goods and people on and off those vessels at a huge variety of different places as they journey around the world.”

Like Iglehart, Northwood believes that the security regime on the cruise ships themselves remains strong. Nevertheless, an effective security regime regarding drug traffickers hinges on effective communication between law-enforcement agencies and ship security, and difficulties naturally arise in this area once the vessel gets under way.

“Ships are going to sail from island to island, so security staff are not necessarily dealing with the same law-enforcement entity at any given time,” says Iglehart. “Because of the conveyance aspect of a cruise line, law enforcement is highly dependent on the competency, commitment and diligence of the security staff, the crew and the captain generally.”

In that vein, a robust criminal background check conducted by the operator on ship crew is all-important in weeding out any individuals who may be lured into an attempt at smuggling. But even that system is not perfect.

“Any criminal record check on an individual is only as good as the day it was carried out, so no system that you put in place to vet crew is ever going to be totally watertight,” says Northwood. While the former Royal Navy captain believes that the current background checks the cruise sector runs have largely proven their reliability, the system is not completely fool-proof. “There’s always that possibility that the bad egg will get through.”

Security on standby

A similar situation can be imagined in port security.

“Getting port authorities to conduct security checks or allow the cruise line company to conduct their own checks alongside them is where it becomes something of an art form as well as a science,” says Northwood. “From a security standpoint, the fact that people have been able to get quantities of drugs on board cruise lines raises the question: could it be terrorists with weapons and explosives next time?”

Ultimately, Northwood believes, operators have to keep in mind that drug smuggling on their vessels is a fact of life and, at the same time, one that can be minimised in scope if a cruise ship is prudent in the way it presents itself.

“If you put in place thorough and appropriate security measures, particularly those that are very visible, you start to make yourself a difficult target,” he advises. “In most instances, the criminals will go elsewhere.”

Nevertheless, criminal gangs do not always act rationally. Constantly preyed upon by law-enforcement agencies, their numbers are consistently replenished by desperate – and occasionally ingenious – new recruits. It’s a fact of life that keeps the BEST team in San Juan constantly on their toes.

“In all segments of business, societyand industry, there’s the opportunity for creative minds to come together and engage in contraband smuggling or other criminal activity,” Iglehart says. “It could happen anywhere.”