Storm Surges and Crime Waves: Law Enforcement During Natural Disasters


Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on security and law enforcement during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief scenarios.

Dorian. Gilbert. Haiyan. Idai. Irma. Maria. Mitch. Nina. The names of devastating storms remain forever etched in the memories of those who lost loved ones, livelihood, or property. While major hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, and other natural disasters are a source of tragedy and suffering, they must also be recognized as a source of opportunities. Criminal opportunities. Recent experiences in different parts of the world have shown that while law enforcement assets are diverted to engage in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after major storms rip through a region, criminals accelerate their activities. They find new routes, new conscripts, new money-making activities. They take advantage of the chaos, disorder, and destruction to find new footholds and speed up their pursuit of illicit profit while the eyes of security professionals are turned toward search and rescue, saving lives, and both responding to and recovering from the latest storm. These major weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense, and should be considered the new normal. To that end, states everywhere must reevaluate how they intend to maintain security and law enforcement functions while attention is focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

At least five responses are needed to help limit the extent of suffering from both disasters and insecurity at the same time. First is to establish a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief strategy – both at the national and regional levels – and include security and law enforcement as a fundamental pillar of it. Second is to establish “shiprider” agreements with states both near and at a distance to be able to marshal auxiliary capacity to cover security and law enforcement needs. Third is to formalize status-of-forces agreements with a variety of states that can be triggered, as needed, to cover security and law enforcement needs. Fourth is to examine existing security cooperation mechanisms for potential use during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations. And fifth is to explore other possible approaches to ensuring that security and law enforcement functions are maintained during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations.



The Need for New Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief Strategy

Despite the long history of intense storms and natural disasters in different regions, and the recent trend of stronger, more frequent storms, relatively little has been done to address the temporary capacity gap in security and law enforcement caused by a weather event. The combination of more unpredictable and devastating storms with more sophisticated criminal networks — and cooperation between those networks — makes for a difficult situation any time a law enforcement blackout occurs. This problem, however, is by no means limited to the areas hit by the storm. On the contrary, it is a regional and international problem, as the networks that capitalize on the situation are decidedly transnational in nature. Even when small local syndicates form in areas where desperation drives criminality — like groups that steal aid to sell for profit, or that extort people for food and basic goods, or that attack vessels to steal or seek small ransoms to make ends meet – such syndicates usually either die out when the circumstances improve or become subsumed into larger regional criminal groups. Comprehensive humanitarian assistance and disaster relief strategies are therefore required to deny criminals new opportunities and new advantages during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. A number of states and regions have developed humanitarian assistance and disaster relief strategies in recent years, but few have even mentioned security and law enforcement. There are, however, a few options for how to address the law enforcement aspects of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. There is a lot that can and should be done at the national level to improve a state’s own response coordination. While multinational approaches are perhaps more challenging to identify and realize, the following responses are all worth pursuing.

Using Shiprider Agreements

One way is to expand negotiation of shiprider agreements. Shiprider agreements are a tool for maritime force multiplication. Through such agreements a single officer with the authority and jurisdiction to conduct maritime law enforcement can embark on a foreign vessel in his or her own national waters and effectively turn it into a domestic vessel. In other words, the official brings his or her law enforcement authorities with them onto the other state’s ship. For example, a Philippine Coast Guard or a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency vessel with an officer of the Indonesian BAKAMLA on board can conduct maritime law enforcement operations in Indonesia. That way, when Indonesian forces are all focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a volcano eruption, earthquake or major storm in one part of the country, regional assistance – provided the nearby states are willing to help – can work to make sure that other parts of the country do not fall victim to enterprising criminal groups. This maintains the security of both the affected state and the wider region.

Using Standing Status-of-Forces Agreements

Another appraoch is to explore possible status-of-forces agreements that can be called into effect for a limited duration. Foreign military personnel in uniform cannot just show up and operate in another country without notice and permission, if they want to be seen as friendly. But status-of-forces agreements are negotiated to provide that permission within a certain scope and protect the foreign military personnel from prosecution, much like sovereign immunity protects domestic military and law enforcement. When one country has a military base in another country, there will always be a status-of-forces agreement in place. But this tool could also be used to create a regional response whereby foreign militaries can come in and operate in a hurricane-hit country with certain authorities and jurisdiction to help with ensuring security. The absence of a status-of-forces agreement between the Bahamas and Jamaica restricted Jamaica Defence Force troops, who were deployed to the Bahamas, from engaging in much-needed security operations during the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. Having an agreement in place ahead of time would allow a foreign military or law enforcement service to provide presence — a crucially important deterrent to criminal activity — while the local military and law enforcement officials are focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Using Existing Mechanisms for Cooperation

Additionally, states can leverage existing mechanisms for cooperation, but to do so specifically with this need to simultaneously address both security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in mind. As it stands, both the Caribbean Community and the Regional Security System have an admirable history of helping with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions across the region. And numerous states like the United Kingdom and the United States have become more generous in recent years in sending national assets to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But this can open up gaps in the contributing countries and still fail to address security and law enforcement in the hurricane-affected areas. Regional mechanisms like these, as well as an almost completely unused treaty from 2003 — the Treaty of San José — provide potential infrastructure from which new arrangements could be developed. During humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, for example, foreign military or law enforcement vessels operate in areas where drug-smuggling activities are taking place, but they are not authorized to respond. There were instances during the Hurricane Dorian response where people were stealing boat engines for possible use in drug smuggling, which is not uncommon, but the British and Dutch ships in the area were not authorized to engage in drug patrols. The Treaty of San José, had it been adopted by all parties, could have provided an approach to dealing with this problem. It streamlines the processes for drug interdiction and sets up a standing shiprider and ship-boarding mechanism (being able to automatically board a suspect vessel of a state party). Most of the Caribbean island states, however, have not signed, much less ratified, the treaty, and so cannot access its effectiveness. The United Kingdom has signed, but not ratified the treaty. These sorts of opportunities should be leveraged for greater security support during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Similarly, in the Gulf of Guinea, extensive agreements and structures provide a number of avenues for mutual assistance. If, for example, there was a natural disaster in Gabon that drew the attention of the navy away from law enforcement, a response option already exists. Maritime Zone D of the Economic Community of Central African States has an integrated system where Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and São Tomé and Príncipe are all able to work together on the water through combined operations at sea to patrol and secure the waters of all four states. This would seamlessly allow Gabon to focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief while the other three states maintain security and law enforcement functions in Gabon’s waters, as well as their own.

Toward Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Relief, Security and Law Enforcement

This problem of maintaining security and law enforcement functions during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions is not going to go away. The best time to try to solve it is when there are no storms in sight and flexible thinking can be gamed out to determine the potential immediate responses as well as second- and third-order implications. To that end, the states of vulnerable regions around the world need to collectively and proactively think beyond the box to address this challenge. One way of doing this would be to hold scenario-based exercises and test out different approaches to find one that works. One of the problems with so-called “out of the box” thinking is that it often involves leaving one box for another box, creating a different set of limitations on how issues can be tackled.  And in some cases, by the time law enforcement actors are out of one box, the criminal actors have already constructed a new box around them.  For instance, as navies and coast guards improved their ability to identify and interdict drug smuggling vessels on the water, cartels developed semi-submersibles – vessels that move at high speeds, just below the water’s surface, making them very difficult to detect and undermining the surveillance measures applied to traditional boats.   So security and law enforcement professionals must come together with partners from outside their own region to broaden the traditional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief approach to that of a “humanitarian assistance and disaster relief plus security and law enforcement” mindset.

Stronger storms are a reality for a growing portion of the world. Recent trends and predictions suggest they will become an even more destructive reality in the years to come. Criminals are also a reality around the globe, bent on improving their illicit trade with lessons learned from past disasters. Some of the most sophisticated criminal networks on earth are able to overcome logistics hurdles that even states cannot surmount in pursuit of illicit profit and capitalize on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations. States everywhere, therefore, need to work together to ensure that while a storm or natural disaster may constitute a major setback to the economy and well-being of a given state, such occurrences should not also be a setback to the security of the entire region. Cooperative regional bodies should convene meetings, perhaps with the assistance of experts who have already faced these challenges, to discuss the concrete actionable approaches that can be taken to enhance multinational resilience. All five of the approaches should be reviewed and considered in the local environment and pursued as appropriate. As weather systems become more volatile, it is impossible to predict when these measures might be needed, so there is no time to waste in advancing regional capacity and capability to achieve security and law enforcement along with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

And what if that need comes during a global pandemic? Part II of this series will add a third element to this challenging balancing act.



Commodore Tellis Bethel is the 7th Commander Defence Force of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and widely regarded as a key leader on maritime security in the region. He was Commander Defence Force for a number of major hurricanes including Irma, Maria, and, most recently, Dorian.

Dr. Ian Ralby is CEO of I.R. Consilium, a purpose-driven family business that specializes in maritime and resource security. He spent three years as the lead maritime crime expert for UNODC’s Global Maritime Crime Programme in the Caribbean and was in the region for Harvey, Irma, and Maria and was in the Bahamas in the days after Dorian. He also works on maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief issues around the world including throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the authors and are not necessarily that of any government or organization. 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr