In January 2021, Ukrainian authorities seized 1.1 tons of heroin worth $81 billion that had entered the country via the Black Sea port of Odessa. Non-state actors transport opioids across the Black Sea, taking advantage of heavy traffic on maritime transit routes and unstable conditions in frozen conflicts and breakaway territories. A deeper understanding of the modus operandi and sea routes of opioid smugglers can help authorities identify areas that should be prioritized for law enforcement action. Without an adequate response, the existence of these well-used sea smuggling routes will continue to support criminal activities, drain government resources and encourage corruption in the Black Sea region.
Frozen conflict and breakaway areas in the Black Sea region, namely Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbass and Nagorno-Karabakh, create ideal working environments for smugglers. As Lada Rosclycky points out that the fluidity and complexity of political power structures in frozen conflicts and breakaway territories creates opportunities for transnational criminal organizations to gain a foothold. In turn, drug smuggling facilitated by these non-state actors can further undermine the rule of law by providing an additional source of illicit income. Studies on seven major insurgents and terrorists financially Networks have shown that violent non-state actors appear to derive almost a quarter of their funding from involvement in drug trafficking. In the Black Sea region, Chechen and al-Qaeda terrorists based near the Pankisi Gorge in northeast Georgia have used proceeds from drug trafficking to fund their operations. As drug smuggling becomes more prevalent in the Black Sea, its destabilizing effect is amplified.
Drug smuggling at sea
The majority of illicit drugs transported through the Black Sea region are opioids and, to a lesser extent, acetic anhydride, a precursor to heroin production. Based on drug seizures in transit countries, an analysis of opioid production levels, and intelligence reports of smuggling activities European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction predicted an increase in the availability of opioids in the EU in the future. Trends in drug production in Afghanistan, which delivers approximately 81 percent of the annual global opium supply, have proven to be particularly meaningful. Production levels in Afghanistan have increased steadily since 2011 in connection with the steady withdrawal of Western International Security and Assistance Forces (ISAF) from the country. The shift in production levels has led to more seizures of drug shipments destined for the EU, where estimates of the number of opioid users are already circulating 1.3 million. While smugglers traditionally prefer the more southerly route through the Mediterranean to the EU, increased law enforcement activity in response to the migration crisis, smugglers have been persuaded to risk tougher Black Sea crossing conditions. Similarly, the deployment of armed forces in response to the conflict in Syria has created obstacles to movement that are encouraging drug smuggler Move operations north.
The transit of acetic anhydride through the Black Sea has also increased. In 2017, the authorities confiscated 81,000 liters of acetic anhydride within the EU. The increase likely resulted from attempts to meet rising demand from heroin producers in the Middle East, as is the case for acetic anhydride from Europe significantly cheaper. smuggler tend to ship these acetic anhydride shipments by sea, as exports of cargo leaving EU ports are subject to fewer security controls compared to imports. Growing evidence for Laboratories for the production of heroin Emergence in Georgia combined with the existence of Laboratories in Turkey could also provide an impetus for increased smuggling of acetic anhydride. Drug smugglers rely on established maritime trade routes to transport illicit drugs across the Black Sea undetected.
Throughout the region’s history, smugglers have used commercial trafficking to disguise the transit of drugs in the Black Sea. In Soviet timesNon-state actors used commercial shipping lanes to smuggle firearms, cigarettes, petrol and other illegal products across the Black Sea. The increase in trade over the following decades has only made detecting illegal goods more difficult. In 2016 is the Black Sea 43 connections were responsible for 2,460,028 Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) sea freight, excluding transshipments. The complex network of maritime trade routes and commercial ports creates opportunities for non-state actors to move illegal goods undetected past overburdened customs and coastguards. Inspect ports on average only 2 percent of TEU for illegal goods. COVID-19 Restrictions air and land transport may also have encouraged smugglers to increasingly rely on sea routes to continue their operations.
Drug smugglers exploit existing maritime trade routes across several methods. Methods that typically require port corruption to run successfully include rip-on/rip; if drugs are delivered without the rightful owner of the container knowing about the continents; where drugs are retrieved ahead of controls and placed in an uncontrolled container and legitimate merchandise; where drugs are hidden in a legal cargo. Other methods used by smugglers include concealing drugs in container structures such as around insulation, floors and freezer compartments. Smugglers use a variety of vessels to move drugs across the maritime realm, including inflatable boats, speedboats, pleasure boats, fishing vessels, ferries, tankers, and semi-submersibles.
inside the black sea, ferries in particular, Georgia’s links with Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine have been linked to drug smuggling. Likewise, Turkish officials have found a link between drug smuggling and the increasing popularity of roll-on-roll-off ferries between Europe and Turkey, which are effective means of transporting trailers and other rolling cargo. Although the numerous transit and concealment methods present a plethora of options for non-state actors, the most commonly used smuggling route through the Black Sea remains the South Caucasus route.
sea smuggling routes
Georgia’s Black Sea ports connect drug smuggling routes through the southern Caucasus mountains to ports along the western and northwestern Black Sea coasts. Opioids produced in Afghanistan reach the South Caucasus mainly via Iran. Further numerous seizures of opioids by Iranian authorities in 2018 correlated with an increase in amounts seized in the Caucasus region, which increased from 0.3 tons in 2017 to 1.3 tons in 2018. Once in the South Caucasus, smugglers transport shipments of drugs to Georgian ports along the Black Sea. Criminal networks in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia provide conduits for these smuggling operations.
Drugs shipped along the east coast through ports such as Ochmchire, Poti and Batumi often make their way to Odessa, Ukraine. Extensive river routes and permeable northern and eastern borders make Ukraine well suited for drug smuggling into the EU. The simmering conflict in the Donbass region has also encouraged the emergence of transnational criminal organizations and further strengthened smuggling networks in Ukraine. In June and July 2019, the Ukrainian customs authorities intercepted a station wagon in Odessa 930 kilograms Heroin shipped across the Black Sea destined for markets in Western Europe and Russia. Another route that transports drugs through the mountains of the South Caucasus connects Georgia with Bulgarian ports like Varna. In April 2020, authorities intercepted 40 kilograms of heroin at the Black Sea port of Batumi after operations seized 72 kilograms in Bulgaria. Likewise, In 2018, the authorities in Poti seized a total of 14.7 tons of acetic anhydride, which came from the Balkans and was destined for Afghanistan.
Criminal networks in Azerbaijan, another Black Sea country locked in a frozen conflict with Nagorno-Karabakh, often route shipments of opium to Georgia after smuggling them across the porous Azerbaijan-Iran border. From Iran, around 70 percent of opioids pass through Azerbaijan, while 20 percent make their way through Armenia before reaching Georgian ports along the Black Sea. In November 2019, customs authorities in Azerbaijan seized 930 kilograms of heroin, the largest single seizure of opium ever made in the northern Black Sea region. Smugglers planned to use ports in Georgia to get the shipment across the Black Sea to Ukraine. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict shielded border crossings from Iran to the disputed areas of Fizuli, Jabrayil and Zangilan in 2020, allowing smugglers to operate nearby with impunity.
While most drugs transported between Turkey and the EU cross the Mediterranean further south, smugglers also use ports on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. 2018 Romanian authorities confiscated 5 tons of acetic anhydride bound for Turkey via the Black Sea. Turkish ports are also used by smugglers to ship opioids from Turkey north to Russia. The significant volume of traffic in the larger Russian ports pleases Novorossiki, including ferries, bulk cargo, passengers and trucks, helps smugglers cover up the shipments. There is also a reverse flow of acetic anhydride shipments along the same route to reach the target markets in Turkey and Afghanistan.
Black Sea smuggling routes use legal maritime transit routes to transport and conceal shipments of opioids across the Black Sea. Non-state actors are taking advantage of weak enforcement and underdeveloped infrastructure in frozen conflict zones and breakaway areas around the Black Sea region to facilitate their operations. However, the symbiotic relationship between smugglers and criminal organizations means curbing the illicit trade can create one self-reinforcing cycle improving local governance in these areas.
Combating drug smuggling in the maritime sphere can also have positive socio-economic impacts beyond the Black Sea region. Terrorism, criminal networks, corruption and black markets in the EU all have links to the trafficking in heroin. An appropriate law enforcement response, based on a thorough understanding of modus operandi and smuggling routes, can counteract the recent increase in the size and frequency of opioid shipments.
*Michael van Ginkel is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.