Today, Crew Center reported that police at the French port of Marseille arrested two passengers aboard the MSC Seaside cruise ship who were carrying 12 kilos of cocaine in their luggage. This is the second drug bust on the MSC Seaside during its transatlantic cruise from Brazil. Previously, Spanish authorities arrested ten passengers who disembarked the MSC Seaside in Valencia, Spain for smuggling 54 kilos of cocaine, according to the EuroWeekly publication.

The arrest of the Brazilian cruise guests, who were involved in the smuggling scheme worth approximately three million Euros, occurred two weeks ago. The MSC ship sailed from Brazil to Spain, where the smugglers, posing as tourists, went ashore with their luggage which was placed in a tent while the passengers proceeded through passport control.

Customs officials in Valencia, using sniffer dogs, then checked the luggage. The officials discovered that fifteen suitcases, which had false bottoms, each contained around three and a half kilograms of the narcotics.

Of interest is the fact that the 10 passengers were from two different gangs of criminals. The newspaper noted that two separate gangs were involved in smuggling drugs, “without being aware that the others were doing the same.”

It is less than clear whether the two recently arrested passengers were a part of the smuggling rings whose ten members were arrested earlier and who reportedly were unaware of each other.

This is not the first time that cocaine has been smuggled out of a South American country on a MSC cruise ship. Nearly half of the MSC Cruise fleet of ships have been caught in major cruise smuggling in the last decade. The MSC Seaside cruise ship involved in this latest smuggling attempt has been used for at least one prior cocaine-smuggling episode which was uncovered in the last few years .

MSC Opera – 19 Kilos of Cocaine

In 2019, the local police in Madeira, Spain arrested a dozen people after the police boarded the MSC Opera in Funchal for involvement in a smuggling operation of cocaine weighing around 18 kilograms and worth two million pounds. The MSC ship had previously sailed from Havana (Cuba), Montego Bay (Jamaica), George Town (Grand Cayman), Cozumel (Mexico), Philipsburg (St. Maarten), and St. Johns (Antigua) before crossing the Atlantic.

The cocaine had been hidden in ‚Äúcrisp‚ÄĚ packets (a/k/a bags of chips) which had been stashed in suitcases. The title of Newsweek’s article on the cruise drug post was titled “Cruise Ship Passengers Hid Cocaine Haul Worth Millions in Chip Bags.”

MSC Divina – 6 Large Bundles of Cocaine

Also in 2019, Mexican authorities discovered an undisclosed amount of cocaine aboard the MSC Divina while the cruise ship was in port in Cozumel, Mexico. According to the Riviera Maya News, Mexican federal agents located six large packages of cocaine inside of a compartment behind a toilet in an undisclosed location on the MSC cruise ship.  The MSC Divina had previously sailed from Kralendijk, Bonaire, Willemstad, Curacao, Oranjestad, Aruba, Ocho Rios, Jamaica and George Town, Grand Cayman before arriving in Cozumel.

MSC Seaside – 6 Kilos

In November of 2018, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers arrested seven MSC crew members for smuggling cocaine into the port of Miami aboard the MSC Seaside. CBP officers reportedly found six kilograms of cocaine and over $100,000 in cash. The Miami Herald covered the drug bust and identified the MSC crew members, who smuggled the drugs, to be citizens of Jamaica and South Africa.

MSC Poesia – 132 Kilos of Cocaine

The local police in Funchal Madeira Island (Portugal’s autonomous territory) boarded the MSC cruise ship, seized 132 kilos of cocaine and arrested 3 male passengers (aged 29, 32, 33) who they charged them with drug smuggling.

MSC Armonia 10 Kilos of Cocaine 

In October 2013, a judge in Italy sentenced three people including MSC crew members who were involved in smuggling cocaine on the MSC Armonia to ten year individual sentences and a fine of 60,000 Euros each for importing ten kilograms of cocaine from South America. The MSC cruise ship departed from Uruguay and arrived at the port of Venice.

MSC Magnifica -15 Kilos of Cocaine 

In April 2013, the Spanish Police arrested two Filipino crew members of the cruise ship MSC Magn√≠fica, which docked¬† in La Coru√Īa, Spain, for trafficking 15 kilograms of cocaine on the ship.

MSC Orchestra Р75 Pounds of Cocaine 

In 2010, eight people were convicted of attempting to smuggle over 75 pounds of cocaine (worth many millions of dollars) ashore from the MSC Orchestra when it arrived in Dover from Brazil.

Poor Shipboard Security

IHS Fairplay published an article several years ago saying that cruise ship drug busts “highlight the ability for more sinister items to be smuggled onto vessels.”¬† In an article titled Drugs Find Highlights Cruise Security Threat,¬†Fairplay says that “cruise companies were taking, and continue to take, security seriously but that the incident had to act as a wake-up call to revisit current systems.”¬†It quoted¬†Gerry Northwood, a principal of the international maritime security company MAST, explaining that¬†cruise passengers don‚Äôt face the¬†same restrictions as air travelers.

Northwood also warned that “If a terrorist were to secrete an explosive device inside a consignment of food, it is possible that the explosion would likely happen below the water line with obvious implications for the vessel and the safety of the passengers and crew.‚ÄĚ

Commander Mark Gaouette, the former security head of Cunard and Princess Cruises, said in an interview that the cruise industry should be concerned with the possibility of a terrorist group masterminding a gigantic conflagration on a ship. He cites the 2004 attack by an Islamic terrorist group which planted just eight kilograms of TNT in a cardboard box aboard the Superferry 14 in the Philippines.  The resulting fire and explosion killed over a hundred passengers and sank the ferry. (Commander Gaouette is the author of Cruising for Trouble, Cruise Ships As Soft Targets for Pirates, Terrorists and Common Criminals).

Drug Smuggling Will Resume As More Cruise Ships Sail

As cruising appears to be increasing notwithstanding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that cruise ships will continue to be used by crew members and guests alike to smuggle drugs from South American countries to the U.S. and Europe.

Except for the one occasion when cocaine which was hidden inside of a compartment behind a toilet of the MSC Divina, and later was discovered by shipboard security, all of the drug arrests discussed above were the result of more rigorous security systems and training involving immigration officials and shoreside police.

How Many Smugglers Get Caught and Which Other Cruise Lines Have This Problem?

The question arises how many people, both passengers and crew members, are able to exploit MSC’s rather ineffective security systems to smuggle drugs onto its cruise ships who are not caught?

Althought this article focuses on MSC Cruises, it is far from being the only cruise line with weak shipboard security and lots of drugs smuggled aboard its fleet of ships.  Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and Royal Caribbean are two lines with arguably worse records with their cruise ships being used by drug smugglers.

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April 14, 2022 P.M. Update:

Photo credits: Top – MSC Seaside – Dickelbers ‚Äď Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, commons / wikimedia; MSC Seaside – Dickelbers via Twitter; Spanish police and drug dogs regarding MSC Magn√≠fica drug bust in 2013 – Jozo via Crew Center; Mexican Police Officer outside of MSC Divina in 2019 – la Fiscal√≠a General de la Rep√ļblica via Riviera Maya News.