Rip-on / Rip-off

One Friday night in July 2016, 32-year old Jack Marrian was woken from his bed in his suburban Nairobi home, handcuffed and taken to the city’s central police station. It was the beginning of an almost three-year nightmare that saw him spending three weeks in a crowded Kenyan jail, deprived of his passport for two years, charged with drug smuggling, and faced with the prospect of spending 30 years of his life in jail.

The previous evening Kenyan Customs officers—in the full spotlight of local media—had opened one of four shipping containers that had just arrived in the port of Mombasa. They found that two of the 50k bags of white sugar in one of the containers had been replaced with 100kg of cocaine, with an estimated value of US$6 million.

The sugar was part of a total consignment of 22 containers that was being shipped from Brazil to Kenya, with transhipment in Valencia in Spain. Mshale Commodities (Uganda) Ltd, the East African arm of British sugar-trading company EDF Man, was the importer of the sugar, and the company’s name was on the documents. Jack is a director of the company.

Jack told me by telephone from Nairobi that it is unheard of for a consignment of shipping containers to be split up so that some containers arrive ahead of schedule. He explained that the four containers that arrived early couldn’t be cleared through the port when the shipping documents were for a 22-container consignment. “A shipping line would normally never split consignments like that as they would be liable for the punitive port storage of the early arriving containers in the discharge port until the balance arrived,” he told me.

“I first heard of the issue from the TV news on the Friday evening,” he said. “The media said that four containers had arrived that day, which did not make sense to me as my shipment was 22 containers, and showing an ETA ten days later.

Unknown to Jack at the time, the US Drugs Enforcement Agency, the DEA, had been tracking the drugs from the moment the smugglers had placed them in the container while it was waiting to be loaded at the port of Santos in Brazil. The DEA had warned their counterparts in Spain that the drugs were on their way, and suggested that they wait to see who came to pick them up. Somehow the warning leaked out, and no one turned up to collect them. Before the Spanish police could get a mandate to open the container, it was whisked off on the next boat to Mombasa. The DEA then informed the Kenyan authorities that the cocaine was on its way.

The container with the drugs, MEDU3333950, was fast tracked out of Valencia directly to Mombasa. The other containers that were split up in the process were reconsolidated in Salalah port, to arrive in Mombasa with the others.

Smuggling drugs in legitimate containers is known as Gancho Ciego or “Rip-on/Rip-off.” The method is widely used by drug gangs around the world, but most particularly out of Brazil. The UNODC describes Rip-on/Rip-off as “a concealment methodology whereby a legitimate shipment, usually containerized, is exploited to smuggle contraband (particularly cocaine) from the country of origin or the transhipment port to the country of destination. In “rip-off” cases, neither the shipper nor the consignee is aware that their shipment is being used to smuggle illicit cargo. For this method to be successful there will always be local conspiracy both in the country of origin or the transhipment port as well as in the destination country.”

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction adds, “The drugs are usually loaded in the dock area, so the ‘rip-on’ team must be able to get the drugs into the container terminal and to locate the container, which must be in an accessible position. In most cases the security seal needs to be replaced with a duplicate to avoid obvious signs of tampering.

“At the port of arrival, the drugs need to be retrieved, which can be achieved in a variety of ways. The drugs can be removed from the container by corrupt port workers or by external teams who gain access to the terminal. After the ‘rip-off’ is complete, the container is either left open or resealed with another false /duplicate seal. The success of the rip-off depends on knowing the location of the container within what is often a very large container terminal with tens of thousands of containers. However, just knowing the container number is usually not enough. It must also be accessible, which again usually requires a corrupt port or company worker to manipulate the position of the container.”

In Jack’s case the smugglers cut the locking bars of the container so as to gain access to it and insert the drugs without disturbing the original seal. A spare MSC seal was found amongst the drugs by the Kenyan authorities.

When the Kenyan police arrested Jack they showed him a photograph that had been taken at passport control in Nairobi airport of three Caucasian men; they asked him if he knew them. He did not, but they were subsequently identified as suspected members of the ‘Ndanghreta crime syndicate. They had arrived at Nairobi airport a few days before the four containers arrived in Mombasa. No one is sure, but the plan was probably for the smugglers to bribe their way into the port, recover the drugs, and rescue an operation that had gone wrong. Unfortunately for them—and for Jack—the Kenyan police got to the drugs before they did.

After Jack was arrested, the DEA wrote a letter to the Kenyan prosecutors explaining what had happened, writing, “The DEA would like to stress that there was no indication the cocaine was to be received in Kenya.” They added, “The company owning the consignment had no knowledge that the cocaine was secreted inside their shipment of sugar.”

Unfortunately, the Kenya authorities continually denied ever receiving such a letter, and the case against Jack and his co-defendant Roy Mwanthi, a Kenyan clearing agent at the port, dragged on. It was only in March 2019 that the case was finally dismissed.

“I don’t want this to happen to anybody in our business ever again,” Jack told me.

“But how can anyone stop it?” I asked him.

“In my case,” he told me, “the vertical bar on the shipping container concerned had been cut through, so that the bar could be turned, and the container opened, without disturbing the seal. (See photo below.) The smugglers than put the drugs inside, closed the container and re-welded the bar, without breaking the seal.

“I think it should be standard practice for containers to be double-sealed between the two doors,” he continued. “The first seal would be a cable that goes between the two central bars, and act as a physical deterrent that needs to be banged off before the container can be opened. The second would be a multiple-layer security-sticker that goes across the two doors with a bar code readable by any standard smart phone. The sticker will allow anyone to check quickly and easily at any point whether that seal has been broken.”

“But how can we implement that change?” I asked him. “How can we make that happen?”

“Traders can implement their own policies for sealing containers,” he replied, “but there needs to be an industry standard. It shouldn’t be something that individual importers need to ask for as an add-on, or as a special favour.”

Listening to Jack, however, I wondered about the effectiveness of any sort of sealing method. Along with the drugs in the container, Kenyan Customs found a counterfeit seal that would have been used to reseal the container in Valencia once the drugs had been removed.

“Surely the solution lies in the hands of the shipping and trading companies,” I asked him. “It must come rather from the port authorities increasing security at the ports.”

“The challenge,” Jack admitted, “is that you are up against a large-scale well-funded organisation, especially from Brazil.”

At the same time as Jack was struggling with the courts in Kenya, Mr Ammaiappan Vasudevan, the 51-year-old partner of Amro Sugars—a sugar importer in Sri Lanka—spent ten months in a Colombo prison pending trial on charges of also smuggling cocaine from Brazil.

On 4th May 2016, 184 sugar containers belonging to Sucden were loaded onto MSC Julie in Santos, Brazil. The Sri Lankan company Amro Sugars bought 54 of the containers while they were afloat, while other Sri Lankan importers bought the 130 remaining. The consignment went via Sines, Portugal where the containers were trans-shipped onto MSC Luciana for Sri Lanka. The cargo cleared customs in Colombo on 9th June, but the containers sat unopened for four days in a privately owned yard until they were inspected by the Sri Lankan Narcotics Raid Unit (NRU).

The NRU had received a tip-off giving them a precise container number. The country’s President, along with attendant press, was present to witness the NRU opening the container. Inside, the NRU found 80 kg of cocaine, marked with a tiger stamp, in three black travel bags, along with duplicate seals.

Mr Vasudevan was present at the time the container was opened and he was arrested on the spot, along with the two wharf clerks who had cleared the sugar consignment through Customs. In addition, Amro Sugars’ bank accounts were frozen, leaving the company barely able to operate.

Even though the NRU privately acknowledged that Mr Vasudevan had purchased the sugars afloat—and therefore could not have known about the drugs—he still languished in jail while the investigation continued. At the time it was the biggest ever drug seizure in Sri Lanka, and drug smuggling is an unbailable offence in Sri Lanka.

One month after the seizure, Amro Sugars’ employees found 274 kg of cocaine in a further two containers and immediately informed the NRU. Because they did so, no one was arrested and the company was ruled an unwitting recipient. However, there was no review of Mr Vasudevan’s case, and Amro Sugars’ bank accounts remained frozen.

This second, separately purchased, consignment had left Santos aboard MSC Letizia, the same ship that carried Jack Marrian’s sugar. All the containers had been loaded on the same date. When the ship arrived in Valencia, the Amros sugar containers were trans-shipped onto MSC Maria Saveria for Colombo, and Jack’s sugar was transhipped to Kenya.

By some estimates, almost half a tonne of cocaine may have been aboard the MSC Letizia when it crossed the Atlantic in June 2016. The drugs were believed to have been destined to the Italian crime syndicate ‘Ndanghreta, which controls up to 60 percent of the cocaine traffic between South America and Europe, and operates in ports all along the Iberian Peninsula, as well as in Italy. According to Nicola Gratteri and Antonio Nicaso, authors of the 2015 book on the crime group Oro Bianco (White Gold), the Rip on / Rip Off technique was developed in the Calabrian city of Gioia Tauro. More than 3.6 million containers pass through the port each year, making it tough to supervise each shipment.

The Italian police first worked out that containers were being broken into when they realised that certain container numbers did not match their seal numbers on arrival. ‘Ndanghreta responded by producing counterfeited seals with matching numbers.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime states that less than 2 percent of the more than 500 million containers that are shipped yearly are inspected. Drug gangs often target sugar containers because sugar does not show up on scanning equipment. As such, the containers have to be searched by hand – a huge task. This makes the Rip On / Rip Off method relatively cheap. Even if a container is seized, there is only a relatively small quantity of cocaine in each container, reducing the cost to the gang.

I spoke to Sivarajah Jegathieswaran, Mr Vasudevan’s nephew (and partner in Amro Sugars), by telephone from Colombo.

“We were unlucky,” he told me. “We took only 54 of the 184 containers on that first shipment, but one of those 54 contained the drugs. The containers were allocated randomly between the three buyers, and we were unlucky to get the one with the drugs in them. The NRU told us that they knew that we were innocent and that we were not involved in the smuggling, but they still kept my uncle in jail. We don’t understand why. Maybe it was political; maybe they were afraid to release him and then have the media criticise his release. They preferred to keep him in prison.”

He told me that they even refused to release his uncle when a few months later three further containers arrived in Colombo with cocaine in them destined for another importer. The importers again informed the NRU, and no action was taken against them.

I asked Sivarajah what needed to be done to stop this happening again. “It has already been done,” he replied. “We have stopped importing sugar—and indeed other commodities—from Brazil and South America. It is not worth the risk. In any case we make so little money out of the imports. It is not just our company. None of the importing companies in Sri Lanka will now buy Brazilian sugar. We have all stopped importing. Sri Lanka now buys their sugar from Europe, Ukraine and India.

“When my uncle went to prison we asked the Brazilian embassy for help, but they said they could do nothing. Now that everyone in Sri Lanka has stopped buying Brazilian sugar the Embassy has come back to us. But they are not protecting us. There is nothing they can do.”

I asked Sivarajah if he was still bitter about the experience.

“My uncle left the company after his release from prison,” he told me. “He left it to my father and me. He had had enough.

“Some of the containers from the MSC Letizia ended up in Myanmar,” he continued, “but no action was taken there against the importers. So why did the authorities in Kenya and Sri Lanka act the way they did?”

Jack Marrian is the nephew of the Earl of Cawdor, whose family seat is Cawdor Castle in the Scottish Highlands. His case received considerable coverage in the UK media, and I wondered to what extent his aristocratic background might have explained the Kenyan authorities’ reluctance to drop the case, even in light of the DEA evidence.

I asked Jack if he felt that he had been singled out, and made a scapegoat. He replied that he didn’t think so, although he did “believe that it was politically expedient for the Kenyan authorities to publically accuse and prosecute me.”

“In a way I was fortunate to have had all that support from the media,” he continued. “I think it helped.”

“Has the experience put you off trading?” I asked him.

“It has made me very cautious about trading anything out of Brazil,” he replied. “Brazil is extremely high risk. People need to understand the sheer volume of drugs that get smuggled around the world in shipping containers. We traders need to understand the risks. And we need to take the issue seriously.”

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