Wearing self-contained breathing equipment, Spanish police waded through rotting animal corpses, urine and faeces, at risk of inhaling pathogens and methane. They had been searching for smuggled drugs on two livestock ships that reeked of decomposition.
On the first ship, Neameh, detained last year in the southern Spanish port of Algeciras on suspicion of smuggling cocaine from Colombia, many of the 4,000 or so cattle on board were found dead and dying as they lay in their own excrement. The stench was so strong drug sniffer dogs could not be used.
The second ship, FM Spiridon, carrying about 5,000 cattle, was detained last year in the Canary Islands, again on suspicion that it was being used to smuggle drugs. Inside, Spanish police found a similar scene of deplorable animal conditions, corpses and sick and dying animals. Many also appeared to be starving. Again, a pervasive stench filled the ship and no drugs were found.
“It was hell,” one witness told Europa Sur at the time, describing a scene of overcrowding and animals “barely able to stand on their feet”.
In both cases drugs were never found, but observers say smuggling drugs and other contraband in ships and lorries carrying livestock remains an increasingly attractive option for traffickers.
Nearly 2 billion farm animals are transported around the world every year in a trade worth worth more than $20bn (GBP15bn) a year.
“Maritime livestock vessels are the Pandora’s box of international smuggling,” says Charlotte Nithart, director of French NGO, Robin des Bois, which specialises in maritime safety and pollution, smuggling, poaching and animal welfare. Livestock ships, she says, are “unrivalled” in their usefulness for “illegally transporting dubious goods, such as narcotics, weapons, counterfeit goods and wildlife by-products”.
The advantages of livestock ships, says Nithart, include the off-putting logistics of where to put animals if a ship is impounded, the size of the vessels, their poorly paid crews and global reach, which spans routes from Colombia and Brazil to European and eastern Mediterranean ports, including those in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.
Other benefits, says Maria Boada, a live animal transport specialist with the Animal Welfare Foundation, include the difficulty of searching pens filled with live animals and the strong smells.
An example cited by Caroline Rowley of Ethical Farming Ireland is a livestock lorry found to be carrying drugs worth EUR900,000 (GBP760,000) in County Louth in 2019.
It is not just drugs that are suspected of being smuggled onboard livestock vessels. Late last year, in France, a livestock ship, the Bruna was turned back and banned from French waters by authorities on suspicion of carrying illegal migrants.
NGOs believe the reports are just the tip of the iceberg. Customs officials are more circumspect, admitting the problem of using livestock as a smuggling decoy exists, but see it as only one of several options open to traffickers.
A source from the Spanish tax and customs agency says livestock boats are “one of the many” ways drugs are concealed on merchant ships with the aim being to “make inspection difficult or require exceptional measures”.
The exceptional measures that would make a livestock ship harder to inspect, the source says, include extra control and sanitary requirements if animals are unloaded, on top of the existing “complexity” of searching any vessel suspected of drug trafficking.
In some cases, even where severe animal welfare problems exist, unloading can be prevented by EU import-export restrictions, a recent report co-authored by Boada found.
Speaking from his experience, the Bruna’s owner-operator, Hussein Hammami, director of the international livestock shipper Hammami Livestock, says the security around livestock vessels could be weak and the ships presented plenty of opportunities for potential stowaways to hide.
But Hammami says that any suggestion the Bruna was involved in people-smuggling was due to a misunderstanding and the ship is, once again, free to enter French waters.
“The French authorities thought they were smuggled, but they were on the ship as crew, then they ran away,” he says. “This has been a problem for us – that people come to work on the ship, with passports and seaman books, and then, when they get to a European port, they run away, especially for crew from Arabic countries such as Syria or Lebanon, where people are suffering.”
Hammami says the company’s main livestock transport routes were between Algeria, France, Spain and Libya, but says people bringing illicit goods on board for smuggling was “not a problem for us”.
Captain Thibault Lavernhe, spokesperson for France’s Mediterranean maritime authority, confirmed the Bruna had been allowed to enter French waters again in January this year to pick up cattle “as there was no longer any reason to suspect it of smuggling migrants”. However, authorities in the southern French port of Sete refused to receive the Bruna, Lavernhe says, citing fears of a public order risk. Instead, another livestock vessel collected the 1,300 cattle awaiting shipment.
Asked why, despite the inhumane conditions on the Neameh and FM Spiridon, both were released for travel after no drugs were found and the sick cattle were not unloaded and euthanised, Spain’s agriculture ministry said the searches were “carried out by the police” in which “the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food had no involvement”.
Earlier this year, Spain’s agriculture ministry ordered almost 3,000 cattle, whose condition had deteriorated after months at sea on livestock carriers Elbeik and Karim Allah, to be killed for welfare reasons in the port of Cartagena.
Neither FM Spiridon’s management company, Murr Shipping, nor the owners and managers of the Neameh, Albert Compania Naviera, care of Arab Ship Management, responded to requests for comment.
Sign up for the Animals farmed monthly update to get a roundup of the best farming and food stories across the world and keep up with our investigations. You can send us your stories and thoughts at [email protected]