The Deadly Rise of Underwater ‘Parasite’ Cocaine Smuggling, writes Max Daly for Vice news source.
VICE News analysis
The wetsuit-clad, unconscious form of Bruno Borges, a professional scuba diver and adrenaline junkie from Brazil, was found floating in the industrial port of Newcastle, Australia, surrounded by 54 kilos of cocaine bricks in May last year.
It’s alleged that Borges, 31, and another diver he knew, Jhoni Fernandes Da Silva, had been smuggled into Australia days before to undertake a risky underwater mission.
They were reportedly there to carry out a nighttime dive to retrieve 108 kilos of cocaine – worth around $30 million to Australian crime gangs – attached to the outside of the hull of the Areti GR, a huge 34,000-tonne cargo ship that had sailed into Newcastle the night before from Argentina.
But something went wrong, potentially with a difficult to use rebreather scuba device, which does not emit telltale bubbles, bought in Australia and used by Borges on the dive.
Borges didn’t regain consciousness and died the next day. Da Silva – and the rest of the cocaine – was nowhere to be found. Police still do not know whether he fled, drowned, or was killed.
After Borges died, superyacht agent James Blake Blee from Cairns in Australia was arrested while trying to fly to Singapore. Court documents allege Blee smuggled the two Brazilians into Cullen Bay, Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory on April 27 last year. Just 12 days after entering the country, Borges was dead. Blee was charged with drug importation and people smuggling and hi son James was also charged with importing drugs. Both men have pleaded not guilty and await trial in a New South Wales court later this year.
Borges lived in Santos, Brazil’s biggest port, in São Paulo state. One of his friends, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VICE News he was a “cool guy”, but that his friends had agreed not to speak about him to the media out of respect for his grieving family.
Borges was a keen surfer and skateboarder, and ran his own abseiling company, Rope Experience. He was previously a professional diver for the shipping industry, and had a large tattoo of a scuba diver on his chest.
His death is a tragedy for his family. But the May 2022 incident sheds light on the rise in the identification of what is known as “parasite smuggling,” a daring underwater tactic used by cocaine trafficking rings to shift product undetected around the world.
It involves divers attaching large water-proofed stashes of cocaine – unbeknown to crews – to the hulls of cargo ships in South America, before retrieving them at destination ports across Europe and Australasia. Usually, there is no connection between the ships’ crews, their charterers and the cocaine smuggling gangs.
The drugs are usually attached and detached in total secrecy
Intervenidos 32 kilos y medio de cocaína en un barco en el puerto de la Luz de Las Palmas.
— Guardia Civil (@guardiacivil) January 4, 2023
The most popular hiding place for cocaine is in the “sea chest,” a cavity in the hull below the waterline which can only be reached by divers, some of whom use underwater scooters to collect the drugs.
Cocaine stashes have also been found in torpedo or box shaped containers attached to the outside of ships’ hulls using magnets or by welding, in cavities behind the rudder, chained to ships inside tires and dragged inside torpedo shaped containers on cables from boats, which can be jettisoned if the authorities approach.
One accused gang based in Michigan was busted as it allegedly laid plans to build The Torpedo, a cocaine-packed parasite drone designed to attach itself by magnets to the hull of cargo ships before being remotely released via a modem once it reached Europe.
While parasite smuggling is not a brand new tactic – the first reported example stretches back to 1991 – VICE News has found a steep rise in incidents in the last two years, especially involving cargo ships, also known as bulkers, travelling out of Brazil.
Maritime insurance firm Proinde, which is based in Santos, published data this month showing that in the first four months of 2023 there were 19 incidents where cargo ships coming out of Brazil were found with cocaine in their sea chests, totalling more than five tonnes. There were 26 such cases last year, including a series of nine incidents in August alone according to the Brazilian Federal Revenue Service. In 2021 there were 13 incidents and nine in 2020.
A significant number of the targeted ships disembark from Santos. Proinde said it had recorded numerous seizures of cocaine from sea chests of cargo ships even before they left the port. It said most “contaminations” at Santos “likely occurred at night in the open and poorly patrolled anchorage, where the waters are deeper, and visibility is better for diving”.
This is the dramatic moment almost £2 million of cocaine was removed from the hull of a vessel in Gibraltar’s waters yesterday afternoon.https://t.co/X7xxdRH2tz#police #RGP #royalgibraltarpolice #hmcustoms #cocaine #Drugsquad #Gibraltar #rgpmarinesection #PoliceOfficer pic.twitter.com/3STCp6djTb
— Royal Gibraltar Police (@RGPolice) January 28, 2021
Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC)
A spokesperson for the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC), a European agency set up to tackle the threat of bulk cocaine trafficking into Europe by sea, told VICE News there has been a “considerable increase in shared intelligence” about parasite smuggling since 2021 and 2022.
“Our cooperation with the Brazilian and Colombian authorities has increased the identification of such vessels, which is only possible using reliable intelligence. This has included the identification of the widespread use of experienced divers to conduct such operations, both at departure and destination ports and anchorage areas,” he said.
Incident reports in the maritime media indicate a significant number of ships with cocaine attached to their hulls are escaping ports in South America and arriving in countries across the globe, from France and Norway to Turkey and New Zealand, with cocaine attached underwater.
In Australia, the authorities first became aware drugs gangs were attaching cocaine to the bottom of big ships due to Operation Ironside, an Australian Federal Police sting which targeted organised criminals messaging each other on ANoM, the encrypted mobile phone platform surreptitiously run by the FBI.
The intelligence resulted in a series of sea busts, including 216kg of cocaine worth $64 million found in the sea chest of the Ouro Do Brasil fruit juice tanker as it pulled into the port of Ghent, Belgium, on the way to Australia from Brazil in June 2021. Police charged Australian fitness instructor Julian Lee, the husband of Instagram pole dance star Dirdy Birdy, with allegedly directing a criminal group and leading a conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of drugs. Last year Lee was jailed after being caught with almost a tonne of cocaine in his car in Sydney in 2020.
Also arrested were two men from Sydney, one an experienced diver, charged with allegedly conspiring to smuggle cocaine into Port Botany, a container port in New South Wales twice in tires chained to the hulls of cargo ships. Since then Border Force officials have started using scuba divers and underwater robotic vessels to check ships coming into Australian ports.
Despite the death of Borges last year, cocaine divers are still popping up in the port of Newcastle.
On January 25th this year a Newcastle port worker on a night shift spotted an unusual shape in the water a few hours before dawn.
Torchlight revealed what appeared to be a scuba diver swimming across the harbour. The port worker alerted the authorities who found discarded diving gear on the shore.
Later that day two Norwegians, Johan-Martinius Halvorsen and Jon Birger Karlsen, were arrested.
Newcastle Harbour was today at the centre of a joint covert operation… involving federal police divers and officers from the Organised Crime Squad.@BellaEvansNBN#NBNNews | Nightly at 6pm pic.twitter.com/1qpIxZfnuP
— NBN News (@nbnnews) January 25, 2023
In court last month, it was alleged the pair were professional divers flown into Australia by a drug trafficking ring and given expensive scuba gear to retrieve 82kg of cocaine strapped to the outside hull of a cargo ship called the Stalo, which had just entered the port after sailing from China from Santos in Brazil.
Cocaine divers have also surfaced across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand.
Later this year an Australian stripper, Matthew “Matty Thunder” Hodder, and Carlos Ferreira-Sampaio from Portugal will face charges of attempting to take possession of the class-A drug for the purpose of supply for allegedly carrying out an underwater dive attempt to remove 91kg of cocaine from the outside hull of the Spirit of Auckland cargo ship docked at Port Chalmers in September last year.
In the first four months of 2023 the tactic has been discovered more times than ever before.
In April Italian authorities found €150 million of cocaine hidden in the sea chest of a cargo ship which had travelled from Santos to Venice.
— Guardia di Finanza (@GDF) April 20, 2023
Divers went to inspect the hull of the Atlas and recovered a container holding 570 packages totalling 850kg. None of the crew were arrested.
It’s not just happening in the big ports. In April, a bulker called the Nordloire arrived at the small port of Husnes on Norway’s west coast, from Vila do Conde, an obscure port in Brazil, with 100kg of cocaine strapped to the hull. Coast guards and police arrested six Albanians who they allege detached the cocaine before trying to escape on a boat.
But while more parasite smuggling gangs are being spotted as police around the world latch onto the tactic, experts admit these discoveries are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
And they are part of yet another creative maritime drug smuggling method, alongside crates of bananas, narco-subs, and floating stashes, that are all fuelling the world’s rapidly expanding cocaine market.
By comparison to the huge amount of cocaine smuggled inside freight containers through ports such as Antwerp in Belgium, the cocaine trafficked using the parasite method is relatively small.
However, the significance of this tactic is less in its volume than in its symbolism. What this technique shows is not just that drug smuggling gangs are able to pull off such brazen operations, but that they can be done with little inside knowledge of the drug trafficking underworld.
Though the tactic requires experienced divers at both ends, crucially there is no need for the institutional corruption involved in container or on-board smuggling, or the expense and know-how to build a 3.7 tonne of cocaine carrying narco-sub, or to own an ocean-going yacht.
“The fixing of ‘torpedoes’ to the hulls of ships has several advantages,” said Jerry McDermott, co-director and co-founder of Insight Crime, a think tank studying organised crime in the Americas.
“You do not need to bribe customs officials or corrupt large numbers of port officials,” McDermott said. “So you reduce the cost and the risk of betrayal and seizure. The main challenge is access to the ship where the divers can work undisturbed, either affixing the torpedo, or recovering the drugs once the ship has reached its destination.”
What makes things easier for the parasite smugglers is that harbours at ports across the world, according to multiple experts spoken to by VICE News, are easily accessed and inadequately policed. Once a stash of cocaine is secured on the hull of a ship, its destination and progress across the sea can be tracked on open source websites. Anyone wanting to retrieve their goods will instantly know where and when they can pick it up.
Yarin Eski, a researcher at VU University in Amsterdam who interviewed Rotterdam’s anti-drugs diving team for a study he called Diving for Dope, said the authorities can’t hope to examine every boat.
“Most of the men working for the Dutch customs diving team are built like bears, and are former underwater construction guys, but diving in industrial ports looking for drugs underneath ships is very labour intensive,” says Eski. “They can check one or two ships a day, but Rotterdam can see 200 to 300 ship movements a day, 100 of which could be indicated as a risk. They could never check them all.”
The method has been slowly gaining traction in the criminal world over the last 10 years. Because the modus operandi is relatively new, there is little insight available into the gangs carrying out these operations and how they work. But there are some interesting cases that have gone through the courts.
In 2013 police rumbled a French smuggling ring that had been attaching 8ft long torpedo-shaped containers filled with cocaine to cargo ships in South America before retrieving them in Europe. The gang were discovered when port police spotted a diver riding an underwater scooter in the Mediterranean oil port of Fos-sur-Mer in the middle of the night. He turned out to be the former ring leader of a 1992 Bank of France heist, and so police decided to track his movements for a year rather than arrest him.
A year later two Dutch men who provided an underwater cocaine retrieval service for organised crime gangs were jailed after being caught trying to remove a stash of cocaine from a Colombian cargo ship anchored in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. The men, one of them aged 68, posed as campers and had been using an underwater scooter to get the packages from hulls for a UK-based crime group.
“The underwater scooter was like something out of a Bond movie,” said David Norris of the National Crime Agency at the time. “These criminals were going to use it to dive beneath the ship under the cover of darkness and recover the cocaine worth tens of millions of pounds. Van Doesburg and Van Milt provide a specialist drug retrieval service for organised crime groups, and we have linked them to other ships that have been intercepted carrying cocaine.”
One international smuggling crew posed as theme park owners and engineers to retrieve cocaine they had planted behind the rudder below the waterline on Maersk Line cargo ships travelling from South America to the port of Tauranga in New Zealand.
The gang included Croatian Mario Habulin, Serbian Deni Cavallo, and two Australians, Matthew John Scott and Benjamin Northway. Habulin, a former special forces soldier, swam down to the ships and climbed into a cavity behind the rudder to detach the drugs before being picked up by two other members of the gang pretending to be fishermen.
The gang bought a Seabob, a James Bond-style underwater scooter to help collect the drugs, and legitimised hundreds of thousands of dollars through a Vietnamese money laundering service.
But they were secretly being bugged by police as they carried out a series of smuggling plots during June, July and October 2017 and were eventually busted after retrieving 46kg of cocaine from a Maersk cargo ship moored at Tauranga.
Vince Hurley, a former undercover drug detective with Australian police and now a criminologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, says the world under water is an untapped resource for drug smugglers.
“70 percent of the globe is covered by the sea, so underwater is a natural avenue for trafficking drugs. Given how poorly-policed ports are, hull trafficking is a goldmine for the traffickers. It’s not unusual to see sailing boats weaving in and out of cargo ships, no one would bat an eyelid if someone hopped on a boat and dived in, it blends in.”
Hurley said the parasite tactic was likely an evolution of the well-worn method whereby go-fast boats pick up drugs dropped off the side of motherships. “But for some drug trafficking organisations letting the crew know about a drug stash is an unnecessary risk. Instead they’ll get some poor indispensable guy at the other end to try and dive for the drugs.”
According to Simon Rogerson, editor of Scuba magazine, attaching and removing cocaine stashes from the hulls of cargo ships is tricky, but not beyond someone who is determined and gung-ho enough
“The skills required to fix bundles to the hull of a ship are fairly rudimentary. You don’t need any special training, it isn’t a deep dive,” Rogerson said. “You’d need to be competent, but not necessarily a professional. The tricky bit would be fixing the package to the ship, especially if it had to be done in secrecy or at night. You can pick these skills up easily enough. If they have to work in stealth mode there’s every chance they may have had military training. Navigating their way across murky harbours is a feat in itself.”
He said closed circuit rebreathers, the type used by Borges, can be dangerous even for experienced, super-fit divers. “You have to know what you are doing. There’s a load of stuff that can go wrong.”
Parasite smuggling is a return to the more adventurous, all action style of drug smuggling, away from the now ubiquitous container shipment method of trafficking, which is all about infiltrating computer systems and stealing reference codes. But ultimately it involves people diving, often in the dark, in murky industrial ports to retrieve drugs. It’s a dangerous business, but there will always be people willing, and desperate enough, to do it.
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