Why drug cartels ship illicit cargo among fruits

Drug cartels must constantly grapple with the difficulty of getting their product safely into the countries in which they will stand the best chance of making the most money.

South American drug cartels must constantly grapple with the difficulty of getting their product safely into the countries in which they will stand the best chance of making the most money.

One of the main reasons drug traffickers favour concealing their illicit cargo inside shipments of perishable goods is items such as fruit and vegetables are often fast-tracked through customs checks on account of their short shelf life.

On top of this, South America is a major producer of several exotic fruits that are exported in large quantities to the markets the cartels want to reach.

This method offers smugglers plenty of opportunity to hijack legitimate shipments to major retailers.

Lucrative crime

Last year’s Global Drug Survey reveals that a gram of cocaine worth €5.40 (US$6.10) in Colombia can fetch up to €211.70 in New Zealand.

It is not difficult to see why trafficking networks put so much time and effort into coming up with new and ingenious ways of slipping their illicit cargo past customs officials.

There have been reports of South American gangs hiding narcotics in fake stones and impregnating drugs into plastic pellets before shipping them into Europe.

Alongside the need for constant innovation, South American drug cartels have a small number of tried and tested smuggling methods.

One of the most popular methods is to conceal inside shipments of perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables. China’s Xinhua news agency reported that Bulgarian customs officers had seized almost 76 kgs of cocaine worth nearly $3 million concealed inside a shipment of fruit in the port city of Burgas.

The haul was found by investigators inside four boxes of fruit at a warehouse in the city that were said to have arrived as part of a larger shipment.

Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior said the drugs had been wrapped in lead foil in order to make them harder for border officers to detect.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers had seized more than half a tonne of cocaine estimated to be worth more than $19 million.

They were hidden inside a shipment of fresh pineapples that had arrived in Georgia by boat from Colombia. CBP agents located 450 packages containing white powder among the pineapples, which tests later confirmed was cocaine.

The UK’s National Crime Agency had impounded cocaine and heroin worth £27 million (US$32.45 million) that was discovered stashed away in a truckload of vegetables at a port in north Lincolnshire.

Investigators in Spain discovered nine tonnes of cocaine worth more than €285 million among hundreds of boxes of bananas in a shipping container that arrived from Colombia at Algeciras port.

Employees of German discount supermarket Aldi discovered that around half a tonne of cocaine had been hidden in a large consignment of bananas brought into the country from Latin America.


In the majority of cases, legitimate fruit exporters and their customers will have no knowledge of the fact that their shipments are being used to smuggle huge quantities of drugs halfway across the world.

South American cartels routinely employ corrupt customs staff at the point of departure to conceal their illicit cargo inside legitimate consignments of perishable goods, and others at the point of arrival to extract them.

Described as “rip-off modality” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this smuggling method requires corrupt staff at the point of departure to position drug consignments in an easily accessible position inside a shipping container before resealing it.

This will ensure that their counterparts at the other end are able to gain easy access to the illicit cargo.

It is likely that something would have gone wrong somewhere along the supply chain. For example, when drugs are discovered in shipments of fruit by workers, although it is plausible that corrupt workers could be employed by trafficking cartels at any point along the supply chain.

The fact that it is still so routine for law enforcement agencies to intercept shipments of drugs concealed inside consignments of fruit suggests that this smuggling method remains popular.

Source: Illicit Trade News Network

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