Europol has released a joint analysis carried out in collaboration with the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Hamburg/Bremerhaven to explore criminal networks in EU ports in terms of the risks and challenges for law enforcement.
ccording to Europol, organized crime is constantly evolving its methods to try to avoid detection. This is especially true for the movement of illegal shipments; drugs, counterfeits and other illicit goods are constantly being uncovered and intercepted by law enforcement in unexpected places.
One key avenue for the movement of illicit goods is through Europe’s ports, where organized criminal networks attempt to hide their cargo amongst legitimate shipments within the EU free trade area.
Key highlights of the report:
- Main methods that criminal networks use to attempt to bypass security at EU ports
- New methods that are gaining traction with criminal networks
- Misappropriated container reference codes, also known as PIN code fraud.
- Wider trends and incentives at play in criminal activity at EU
- Corruption as a key facilitator for traffickers of illegal goods.
- Discussion on how port authorities and law enforcement can work together to root out criminal activity in ports.
Vulnerability of EU ports for infiltration
Seaports are spaces with unique geographic and spatial qualities. By their nature, they are vulnerable to criminal threats due to multiple factors, such as:
- their open structures
- the need for accessibility
- the vast volumes of shipments they process
- ports’ connectivity with the surrounding areas and further
- transport links
- the large numbers of companies and personnel on the scene
The report highlights that the volume of goods handled 24/7 and the size of a port are important determinants for the level of vulnerability for trafficking of illicit goods, and therefore the risks for infiltration by criminal networks. EU ports handle an immense volume of goods.
The percentage of containers inspected is low: only approximately 10% of the containers originating from South-American countries and 2% overall. Although the number of seizures has increased, the likelihood of containers with illicit goods being detected remains low, especially given the high levels of traffic and daily container throughput.
Large networks organizing overseas trafficking of drugs to the EU
- Criminal networks can opt to hide the illicit goods in the ship itself, attached to the outer hull or hidden in containers loaded on the ship.
- Illicit goods can either be retrieved before ships reach the port or after their arrival.
- Pleasure vessels and fishing boats are frequently used to transport large quantities of cocaine
- largest amounts found in seizures are hidden in Europe-bound cargo ships, mainly in maritime shipping containers
Once the illicit goods arrive in the destination port, the goods can be extracted from the container in the port by an extraction team who leave the port area on foot or in a vehicle, or the goods leave the port in a container and are collected outside the port area.
In order to ensure safe transit of the illicit goods in containers, criminal networks will analyze data obtained by insiders.
With this information, they target those shipments that are going to the desired destination, are less likely to be inspected, and that are organized by logistics companies where they have access to corrupted actors. These are referred to by criminals as ‘green lines’.
Modi operandi for extraction of drugs from containers
- The rip-on/rip-off method
In maritime container drug trafficking, the rip-on/rip-off method is one of the main MO employed by traffickers. In the port of departure, the drugs are placed in the container in a place which is easily accessible. The drugs are then transported along with the goods from a legitimate receiver/importer, who is often unaware of the situation. At the destination, the drugs are retrieved in or outside the port by extraction teams.
- The switch method
The newer switch method has been increasingly observed over recent years. This MO involves the transfer of drugs from a non-EU container to another container which has less or no risk of being controlled. Often the drugs are transferred to a container in intercommunity transport from one EU country to another as these containers are seldom inspected. Alternatively also empty, transshipment or export containers are used.
- Cloning of containers
Another variation of the switch method is the cloning of containers. This method involves a container scheduled for a scan and control by customs. When the container is transported to the scanner, the original container leaves the port area and is replaced by a replica container (clone) with the same registration number as the original container.
- Trojan horse container
All of these modi operandi require the support of insiders operating in the port. The insiders include corrupted port personnel but also extraction teams brought into the port with a ‘Trojan horse container’. These are often export containers with an extraction team inside which are transported into the secure port area, sometimes days before the arrival of the illicit goods.
Taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the logistics chain
Once the criminals have the container number and the container reference code, they can gain access to detailed information about the status of the container as it is logged in the integrated and automated port data systems. They can also check if the container is present and ready for release, in order to schedule an illicit pick-up.
The misappropriation of container reference code is an MO seen both in automated and non-automated terminals. In automated terminals where traditional MO building on a network of corrupted connections in the port sometimes becomes more difficult, this method offers an excellent alternative.
Building a corruption network
Building on the local coordinators and their accomplices, criminal networks infiltrate ports by corrupting personnel who are:
- directly active in the port such as port workers, terminal operators, security, customs and police;
- employed in logistics companies, in port authorities, semipublic and public authorities with access to port data systems;
- from third party companies with privileged access to the port such as truck drivers or maintenance personnel.
Violence and corruption
Violence is used to ensure compliance of corrupted individuals and external facilitators, as well as for fighting out rivalries between criminal networks active in the ports and the settlement of scores.
Violence is spilling out of major transportation hubs onto the streets of surrounding cities, where competition for distribution takes place. Criminal networks use several methods to convince port personnel to cooperate and to remain cooperative.
Bribery, often building on a relationship of trust, providing drugs or facilitating sexual services, are part of the arsenal used by criminals to obtain cooperation. When compromised personnel want to step out of a corruption network or, more rarely, criminals need to force unwilling individuals to service them, criminal networks turn to intimidation, blackmail and violence.
Furthermore, in an environment of transient networks of brokers, criminal groups and service providers working together, violence also ensures compliance of external criminal collaborators. Violent acts range from threats, intimidation and torture, to murder. Occasionally innocent individuals operating in ports or outside ports are targeted, such as the drivers that legitimately move containers in which drugs may be concealed.
- Timely international information exchange of operational, tactical and strategic information is crucial to setup a coordinated approach. Through joint investigations, operational task forces (OTF) and EMPACT, EU law enforcement and justice authorities can take concerted action supported by Europol.
- A common Europe-wide approach with attention for regional aspects needs to be implemented in EU ports to tackle this threat, since criminal networks continuously look for loopholes in security, adapt their modi operandi or switch from one port to another seeking more favourable conditions for their operations.
- Strengthening ports’ resilience to infiltration, as well as preventive and investigative actions.
- With the further modernisation and expansion of many EU ports, continuous attention must be paid to the integration of security features in the design of port infrastructure. This includes the development of legislative initiatives at the European level to streamline security measures in ports, as well as implementing public-partnerships to involve all port actors essential for tackling the infiltration of criminal networks in EU ports.
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