Tugboat Off Aruba Coast Hides More Than Just Cocaine

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The journey of a mysterious tugboat seized off the coast of Aruba with two tons of cocaine onboard offers clues about smuggling methods and the role the Caribbean island currently plays in the drug trade.

The tugboat was stopped on October 13 in the territorial waters of Aruba, one of the islands of the Dutch Antilles, El Pitazo reported. After a search of the vessel by Aruban authorities found 2.2 tons of cocaine, the five-person crew — all Venezuelans – was arrested and the boat seized.

The boat, which departed from Cartagena, has been swept by members of the Colombian navy with drug-sniffing dogs. Authorities said that the cocaine was probably smuggled onboard in open waters and that the boat, at some point, disappeared from radar.

This is not the first time this year that a drug smuggling boat has been found in Aruba’s territorial waters. In August, authorities stopped a suspicious boat off the island’s north coast. It was carrying about 500 kilos of cocaine.

InSight Crime Analysis

Aruba’s proximity to Venezuela, barely 23 kilometers away, and its ties to the Netherlands make it an important transit point for smuggling cocaine.

It is highly unlikely that Aruba’s small local market was the final destination for the 2.2 tons of cocaine. The drugs were probably meant for Europe, which has seen a large increase in cocaine smuggling in recent years, or for the United States, for which Aruba has served as a transit point before.

Most cocaine arrives in Europe hidden in legal cargo on container ships. Venezuela’s collapse, however, has decimated its shipping industry, making nearby Caribbean island nations an attractive dispatch point.

Being part of the Dutch Caribbean, Aruba also has cultural ties to the Netherlands and infrastructure that facilitates the transnational cocaine trade to Europe. Aruba has two direct flights to Amsterdam Airport daily and a modern container port that opened in 2016.

InSight Crime reporting illustrated earlier this year that humans and drugs have been successfully smuggled from northern Venezuela to Aruba. This trafficking, however, is largely opportunistic and done on motorboats.

Authorities did not speculate as to why the cocaine-laden tugboat started its journey in Colombia rather than Venezuela. Also mysterious is the tugboat itself.

Named Gracia and registered to a Venezuelan company, its International Maritime Organization number — clearly visible in photos of the vessel — belongs to a tugboat named Jefferson, registered in the United States, according to a vessel tracking website. Photos of the Jefferson tugboat, however, show a vessel different than the one seized.

The claim that the ship disappeared from the radar is also strange. Radars work with radio waves. Drug traffickers have managed in the past to build specialized boats to avoid being detected by radar, but a large tugboat can’t possibly disappear. What’s more likely is that the ship turned off its communication system en route.

What the episode does show is that the criminal group behind the shipment had a high level of organization by taking measures to reduce visibility, and by using the identification number of another vessel.

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