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MIAMI – In May, after leaving a Chinese shipyard where he underwent repairs, a large tanker undertook a dangerous journey.
Connected to “Caribbean,” a mandatory tracking system, the captain of the Liberia flag vessel headed west. Weeks later, when approaching Venezuelan waters, VL Nichioh suddenly stopped transmitting its location, course and speed in violation of international maritime regulations. Basically, it disappeared offshore without a trace.
What happened while the merchant was ilocalizable remains a mystery. But when he reappeared nine days later to Asia, the Nichioh was sailing lower, something that according to ship tracking experts is a clear indication that he had deactivated his locator to load valuable merchandise pursued by US sanctions: Venezuelan oil.
While Donald Trump’s government imposes drastic measures against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, with sanctions that seek to deprive him of the cash provided by the country’s vast oil reserves, some captains and ship owners are willing to help the questioned socialist leader to “disappear” to hide their oil tankers loaded with crude.
But industry experts point out that this elusive tactic, perfected by what the United States considers corrupt ships for transporting Iranian oil in violation of Washington’s restrictions, poses a great risk.
“These ships transport two million barrels of crude oil,” said Russ Dallen, director of the Caracas Capital Markets brokerage based in Miami, which monitors maritime activity near Venezuela to identify activities that could violate the sanctions. “They cannot wander blindly in the dark. It is a potential environmental disaster. ”
According to the United Nations maritime treaty, since 2004, ships of more than 300 tons are required to use what is known as an automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist in rescue in case of spillage or accident at sea.
Although the captains can turn off the transmitters by crossing hot spots such as the Strait of Hormuz or to avoid pirates off the coast of Somalia, ship monitoring companies have specialized in tracking merchant activity to help the forces of security to identify violations of penalties and criminal behavior.
Until recently, oil tankers that docked in Venezuela had little reason to deactivate their locators, a tactic more associated with Chinese fishermen who illegally fish in the Pacific Ocean off the South American coast or human traffickers in the eastern Mediterranean.
But in January, after Maduro swore as president for a second term that many nations considered illegitimate, the Trump administration banned US companies from doing business with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and threatened to retaliate against foreign companies that continue to do so. .
As part of that offensive, the 34 ships of the PDVSA fleet were paralyzed by the veto in ports in the United States and other western nations. The same happened with several private fleets that were intercepted delivering oil to Cuba, Maduro’s ally. The measure accelerated the collapse of crude oil production in Venezuela, which is at its lowest level in seven decades despite having the largest reserves in the world.
“Once blacklisted, these merchants are lepers and are very difficult to operate,” said Omer Primor, head of marketing at Windward, an Israeli maritime analysis firm that helps security forces find potential offenders of sanctions “Nobody wants to deal with them so they basically become floating warehouses.”
In the nine months since the imposition of sanctions, 14 suspicious activities were observed near Venezuelan waters, according to Windward. This is equivalent to about 22% of the 50 port arrivals reported in the country in the same period, a drastic decrease in legal maritime traffic in the nine months prior to the imposition of sanctions.
Windward said that most of this oil goes to China or Russia – two of Maduro’s main economic backups and for which US sanctions are less intimidating – and India.
Companies have other tricks to avoid being located, such as reporting fake destinations, changing management frequently or making dangerous transfers in which “missing” vessels gather on the high seas to exchange their cargo. At first, the Brazilian authorities suspected that one of those merchants with Venezuelan oil was behind a mysterious spill that affected 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) of coastline.
In the case of the Nichioh, its cargo arrived at the beginning of September at the Indian port of Sikka, where Reliance Industries operates the largest refinery in the world. Then it crossed the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar, with destination “Caribbean for orders”.
But after a few days moored in Trinidad, the tanker changed to “Aruba” and disappeared for 10 days, again to load Venezuelan crude, according to the Kpler marine tracking firm. On November 12, he passed through South Africa en route to China.
According to Kpler data, the two Nichioh trips were hired by the Russian state company Rosneft, which was sanctioned by the United States for the crisis with Ukraine. Before the sanctions, the ship had never reported trips in the Western Hemisphere.
The registered owner of the tanker, a Liberia company called Major Shipping SA, could not be reached for comment. Liberia is one of the most common countries in the flags of these ships because they can be registered there meeting few requirements and with little more than an email address. In many of the clandestine activities identified by Windward in Venezuela, vessels with the Liberian flag were involved.
But not only the old ships that operate on the margins of the maritime industry take advantage of the desperation of Venezuela.
In June, the state-of-the-art merchant Cosrising Lake, owned by a subsidiary of Chinese shipping giant Cosco, was silent for 14 days after loading 1.9 million barrels of crude in the Venezuelan port of José, according to Kpler. Weeks later, his cargo reached the Chinese port of Dongjiakou.
Cosco did not explain the reasons why the Hong Kong flag boat disappeared from the radars. But in a statement, he said he complies with laws and regulations and that his ships have maintained the normal operation of their AIS systems in accordance with the international convention for the safety of life at sea.
The Trump administration is also studying reports that Hurd’s Bank, off the coast of Malta, is becoming a ship-to-ship transfer point to hide Russia’s supply of chemicals to a Venezuelan industry desperate to dilute its heavy crude , said an American official. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter in public. Before, Venezuela imported the diluents from the United States.
“Criminals linked to Venezuela are increasingly creative in manipulating the laws that govern international maritime trade to avoid sanctions,” said Ian Ralby, director of IR Consilium, a US consultancy focused on maritime and resource security.
“The authorities in the region and beyond have to be alert and proactive to prevent the Maduro regime from using illegal activities to convert Venezuelan resources into cash,” he said.
Source: San Diego Union Tribune
The Associated Press journalist Scott Smith in Caracas, and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this office.
AP journalist Joshua Goodman is on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman