Authorities in Belgium pulled in a massive catch on Saturday after they recovered a ton of cocaine that was spotted floating 15 miles off the Belgian port of Ostend in the North Sea.
A pilot boat that transports personnel to and from ships noticed duffel bags laden with 16 sealed packages containing the drug while conducting maneuvers in the area. Maritime police used a tugboat with a crane to collect the contraband bring it ashore. The investigation has since been handed over to the prosecutor in Bruges.
The loot weighed in at more than 2,100 pounds and has an estimated street value of 50 million euros ($56 million). To evade customs, smugglers have been increasingly tossing illegal goods over the sides of shipping vessels to be retrieved by accomplices trailing behind. This is the third such discovery in recent weeks — 2,650 pounds of cocaine were found in the sea in December, along with another 1,770 pounds in January.
"As the chance of getting caught in the ports increases, criminals are trying out other, sometimes novel, methods in order to avoid the classic controls," Belgian magistrate Ken Witmas remarked to local newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. "More and more traffickers are trying it and this is a growing phenomenon with us."
The "queen of Belgian seaside resorts," as Ostend is affectionately known in Belgium, has become a transit point for French dealers who go there to buy drugs smuggled in from the Netherlands.
Former undercover French customs officer Marc Fiévet infiltrated several major international drug rings during his time in the field, during which he developed close knowledge of their distribution methods.
"The technique used this weekend off the coast of Belgium is really quite simple," he told VICE News. "The packages are linked to each other with a nylon rope and are tossed overboard. Fifteen minutes later, a small boat comes to collect the merchandise and to bring it ashore."
This strategy is on the upswing because it doesn't involve an exchange between two vessels, and therefore is not easily picked up by police radars.
"It was first mastered by British drug traffickers," Fiévet explained. "They would sometimes even leave a man out at sea in a wetsuit, with a mini-beacon, to collect the goods. Today they're probably using the same beacons that fishermen use to locate their lobster traps."
But while sea transport is seen as one of the safest methods to shift large quantities of illegal substances because it significantly reduces the risk of arrest for traffickers, the drop-and-collect method clearly remains less than foolproof.
"The sea is unreliable," Fiévet said. "You're always at risk of engine failure, at the mercy of currents or bad weather. Having said that, losses are part of the business — the cost of the merchandise is negligible for the producer, which means that even important losses are tolerated."
The emerging trend of dumping drugs out at sea is reminiscent of an earlier trafficking system observed off the Belgian coast. Traffickers would weigh down the packages and toss them overboard near the shore. An accomplice would then intercept the packages.