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  • 2023 April 6 15:02

    Europol studies criminal networks in EU ports

    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, according to SAFETY4SEA.

    According to Europol, organised 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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’.

    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, transhipment or export containers are used.
    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.

    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.

    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.

    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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