Foiling drug smugglers: An unenviable task for Customs

2013-11-01 05:12:53

A bag with unusual rivets was the only one still moving on the conveyor belt at the Katunayake Airport for nearly two hours. A customs officer who was on duty at the arrival lounge noticed the suspicious bag and removed it to the room occupied by the customs duty officer.

It was locked and had the airline tag with the name of the passenger given as Matilda Fernando. The officer checked the list of passengers arriving on that particular flight and found out that a passenger on board had been arrested for possessing a forged passport. When the suspect, who was in the custody of the Katunayake police at that time, saw the customs officers approaching her, she threw the key of the bag she had abandoned. When the bag was opened the officers found four kilogrammes of heroin concealed under a false bottom of the bag. She was produced in court and after being found guilty was sentenced to a term of rigorous imprisonment.

Although Customs officers come across incidents of individuals being arrested with 50 miligrames or 50 grammes of heroin nearly every day, yet the manner in which these drugs come into the hands of ordinary people are not thoroughly checked. Here is an in-depth look at various methods adopted to smuggle drugs into the country and the role of Customs officers in combating narcotic smuggling.

How are drugs smuggled into the country?
According to the Customs there are three ways which drugs are smuggled into the country. One is from air; it could be hidden in the baggage accompanying passengers or through air cargo. The second method is through general cargo shipped in containers. The third method is by boat from India where they smuggle drugs into the country through the Mannar-Puttalam sea route.

The system which is practised mostly by passengers smuggling drugs is by swallowing them or concealing them inside their rectum. The maximum pay load that could be hidden inside a person’s body is one kilogramme. Heroin is wrapped in polythene and concealed in a condom which is then swallowed. Scanning machines spot the contraband but it is not unusual for Custom officers to identify a carrier by observing his suspicious behaviour.

The Customs have a Risk Management Centre which has highlighted the suspicious countries of origin about which the officers have to be on high alert.

Customs Director and Revenue Task Force Chief Mali Piyasena said that flights coming from Karachi were regularly monitored and put under surveillance to detect the inflow of drugs and smugglers. In their greed to earn millions the smugglers, some with many years of experience and some still novices in the trade swallow as many heroin capsules as possible or conceal them inside their rectum making it difficult to giving the alert Customs officers tell-tale clues to identify the smugglers without much difficulty.
The drug traffickers also conceal drugs inside suitcases, travelling bags, trolley bags, pilot leather bags, mixer-grinders, shoes, statues and even vases to name a few. If the drugs are smuggled by hiding them inside a suitcase, the weight of the case is much heavier than that of a normal one and gives a dull sound. Officers also inspect tamper marks, remnants of glue, odour and tempered screws on suspicious baggage.

If a person behaves in a suspicious manner then his travelling documents are examined which leads the officer to find out whether the person is a genuine passenger or not.

“Once the suspect is arrested and the suspicious baggage seized, an officer is appointed to look after the bag,” Mr. Piyasena said. The inventory of the production, sealing it, sampling and testing of the drugs are all carried out in the presence of the suspect.

General cargo which arrives in Colombo for transit may pass through without being scanned properly for two reasons -- one because the large volume of containers coming to Colombo amounts to between 800 and 1000 and the second reason is the country of origin.

More often than not inspections are made if there is vital information with some kind of evidence that could lead to detection. If the consignment density is high, there is the ever present loophole of the container though scanned the drugs escape detection. This is the reason why individuals who have a vast knowledge and experience about the drug trade, conceal the drugs inside tiles, shoes, grease and even in bags of potatoes, because the smugglers are also aware of the benefits obtained by the density factor.According to Mr. Piyasena, the Customs maintain a strong relationship, day to day communications and information sharing with other Customs offices in the sub-continent.

“But some don’t like to share information because they don’t want to publicise the fact that their own country is responsible and is the place where the drugs come from,” he said.In the recent seizure of the largest-ever heroin haul in South Asia, the Karachi Customs seal was found on the container.

Collecting high quality, reliable and valid intelligence that could be used tactically against drug traffickers is vital in tracking them down. The first important step is the process which translates the information into intelligence. Evaluation of intelligence data is evaluating specific information for accuracy and how it could be utilised for a thorough investigation. The reliability of the source and the credibility of the information will be the ideal situation to evaluate it initially. The initial evaluation of the available information can identify the credibility and the authenticity of the source as well.

The drug trade involves several key individuals and the drug traffickers do not hesitate to satisfy the key stakeholders through whom the cargo passes.
The Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1935 which has undergone many amendments is the principal statutory enactment regulating dangerous drugs in the country. The Customs Ordinance (17/1869) imposes prohibitions and restrictions of both import and export of substances prohibited under the poisons, opium and dangerous drugs ordinance.

Where the Customs can lose track
If a general cargo container first left Karachi and then went to Beijing, then the country of origin and the destination changes. Goods coming from Beijing do not come under the suspicious destinations category, therefore drug peddlers make sure that theconsignment is on transit and goes to a safe location before heading for Colombo. Sometime Customs officers might not look at the consignment as suspicious due the massive flow of containers coming into the country.

Drug traffickers also spray their suitcases with strong perfumes and therefore the odour which is normally given by heroin deviates. Another method which would go undetected was when drug dealers smuggle the heroin soaked or coated. Pakistanis began to smuggle drugs into country by hiding them in their anus. This was a new method which Lankan Customs officers were unaware of, at the beginning until local agents began to use x-ray detections. A new method is that smugglers have begun to use aircraft compartments for concealment of narcotics where they use magazine racks, baggage cabins and even under passenger seats. Drug traffickers are also known to use more sophisticated methods to smuggle drugs into or out of a country.

Therefore Customs officers too have to learn of these new methods and the latest know how to use new equipment to track drugs concealed inside baggage if they are to outwit the smugglers. But lack of knowledge and awareness of new methods give drug traffickers the upper hand to successfully smuggle drugs into a country.
Sri Lanka has nearly 55,000 heroin addicts. It has become a centre for the drug trade as it is used as a transit hub by countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

Narcotics are smuggled into Sri Lanka for two reasons. One is to meet the demand of the addicts and the other is for re-export.

Therefore demand reduction, supply reduction and production reduction are three major areas which have to be dealt with in the war against drugs. The Customs said it did not have trained sniffer dogs well trained in identifying drugs or the facilities and equipment which would help to detect drugs especially heroin. Mr. Piyasena pointed out that some officers do miss their target due to a number of reasons but the main being the failure to identify the body language of the suspect.

Furthermore most officers are not given proper training on studying different methods of concealments concerning the smuggling of narcotics into the country. It has been suggested that Customs officers should be sent for international workshops and share intelligence with other law enforcement agencies so that they are able to share the knowledge and study the narcotic smuggling network. Improving the facilities and providing better equipment to the Customs Marine Division is another key requirement as well. It was also necessary to have a better coordination among the narcotics control unit, the prevention division, airport and harbour examination points to track down narcotic smuggling. An increase in the amount of the reward given for narcotic detection is also necessary since officers get more rewards from the detection of other misdeeds such as revenue frauds.

Drug smuggling should be eliminated since it is not only ruining the lives of the next generation but also draining the economy of the country as well.
The Sri Lanka Customs controls most of the entry and exit points in the country especially the Katunayake International Airport and the Colombo Port as such the Customs have a big responsibility and a big role to play in preventing drugs entering Sri Lanka .

Pix by Kushan Pathiraja

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