The discovery of EUR50 million worth of cocaine in a Coca-Cola factory is symptomatic of a wider trend of major trafficking operations in the E.U.
July 2016: Romanian police made a record-breaking seizure of cocaine, hidden in banana containers.
August 2016: Workers at a Coca-Cola factory in France discovered a large shipment of drugs concealed beneath boxes of orange juice concentrate.
September 2016: The Council of the European Union gave its final approval for the creation of a European Border and Coast Guard, to follow on from the mandate of the border agency Frontex.
In a Coca-Cola factory in Signes, near the southern French city of Toulon, workers were unpacking a shipment of orange juice when they discovered rucksacks hidden in the container. On opening the bags, they found 370kg of cocaine, worth EUR50 million, which had come from Costa Rica and arrived at the French port of Fos-sur-Mer undetected.
The discovery, significant though it was, is symptomatic of a wider trend of major trafficking operations in the E.U. Just days before the Coca-Cola haul, Greek customs authorities found 30 million contraband cigarettes, worth EUR6.2 million in tax revenue, in the ports of Thessaloniki and Piraeus. The cigarettes were in containers registered as transporting wine and furniture to Macedonia.
In Romania, in July 2016, police seized 2.5 tonnes of cocaine, with a street value of EUR600 million, concealed in banana containers from Colombia. Police believe the smugglers planned to offload their illicit shipment into lorries bound for the Netherlands carrying construction materials. The examples are myriad: Spanish police have found cocaine in crates of chard, furniture and even massive blocks of marble. In Germany, Lidl supermarkets have twice accidentally received shipments of cocaine worth EUR16 million in total hidden in crates of fruit that were delivered to the port of Hamburg.
Crime networks smuggle their shipments into containers to Spain, Portugal and France
These incidents are highly embarrassing, not just for the goods traders but for the logistics companies entrusted with transporting the materials. Such hauls, which represent only a fraction of the drugs and contraband goods smuggled into the E.U., demonstrate poor security at best, and at worst, complicity in trafficking.
Shipping containers are particularly vulnerable to cocaine trafficking, and they often arrive in the E.U.’s biggest ports: Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg and Valencia. Smugglers are able to hide their wares – often several hundred kilos at a time – in containers which can then be accessed and unloaded, or even transported further in amongst legal goods before criminals retrieve the drugs or contraband. Multimodal goods transport is therefore particularly vulnerable to traffickers who infiltrate dockyards and loading bays to retrieve or deposit their trafficked packages.
Organised crime groups like the Italian ’Ndrangheta plant ‘soldiers’ in docks and harbours, such as the Gioia Tauro transshipment port in Reggio Calabria, so they can load and unload containers with drugs. A Europol operation recently broke up a Greek-Albanian trafficking network using Bulgarian and Austrian road haulage companies as a front to transport large quantities of cocaine and cannabis.
Fresh food is often a target for traffickers, who believe customs officials will not seek to hold up perishable goods for long periods of time to search through them. Traffickers exploit the cultural links between the country of origin and the country of destination. Crime networks from Latin America and Lusophone Africa smuggle their shipments into marine containers heading to Spain and Portugal. Illicit goods from Guadeloupe and Martinique often find their way to France.
According to Europol, traffickers systematically recruit corrupt border guards and other workers at all major ports and border checkpoints in the E.U. In order to minimise the risk of detection, some go as far as to create seemingly legitimate freight transport companies to smuggle cocaine, heroin, synthetic drugs and contraband goods across Europe.
Sophisticated technology hacks mean that logistics companies risk becoming unwittingly involved in serious crime. Workers at the Belgian port of Antwerp had no idea that their location system had been hacked until entire containers started to disappear in 2013. It later transpired that a Dutch organised crime syndicate had been hiding drugs, guns and cash in legal shipments over a two-year period.
Hackers had changed driver credentials and schedules so organised crime gangs could arrange for their own drivers to smuggle the illicit goods out of the port in accredited lorries. One lorry driver with no links to the gang accidentally drove off in a container filled with cocaine and narrowly escaped being shot dead.
Port authorities and logistics companies cannot eliminate the risk of organised crime infiltrating their containers, ships and lorries. However, businesses, particularly large conglomerates with global supply chains, should reduce the risk of smuggling as much as possible in order to avoid reputational damage. While companies cannot control the screening processes of customs officials and port workers, they can conduct extensive due diligence of their logistics contractors or, if in-house, thoroughly vet employees. Where possible, firms can also limit their operations to ports that have implemented the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code.
Some global food producers have signed memoranda with high-risk countries; for example, Nestlé has signed several agreements with countries including Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan relating to the smuggling of contraband and counterfeit goods.
At the same time, efforts are being made at the transnational level to combat drug and contraband smuggling. The E.U. implemented the Drugs Strategy in 2013 in order to reduce the supply of drugs across the bloc. One strand of the strategy is the disruption of trafficking routes, but criminals are increasingly diversifying their routes and changing their strategies more frequently. Further, the migrant crisis has stretched the resources of border authorities more than ever before, allowing organised crime groups to move larger quantities of illegal goods – and humans – over land and sea borders.
The UNODC and World Customs Organization launched an inter-agency Container Control Programme (CCP) in 2003, with notable success. In 2014, the CCP seized almost 20,000kg of cocaine, more than 460kg of heroin and 29 million cigarettes. However, its focus is not on Europe, and food companies in the public eye should consider how to take appropriate measures themselves.