[By Alexander Kupatadze]
On July 1, Italian police made the largest amphetamine seizure in the world. At the port of Salerno, just south of Naples, they used chainsaws to open large cylinders of paper and industrial machinery that were inside shipping containers from Syria and found 14 tonnes of pills.
In Hong Kong, customs officials seized record numbers of illegal shark fins in April and May, from an estimated 38,500 sharks. Meanwhile, the trade in counterfeit drugs and medical equipment has been in overdrive. US border authorities recently confirmed that they had seized nearly a million units by the beginning of June.
These record seizures are puzzling, since they suggest that such activities are increasing. The trade in illicit and legitimate goods are usually closely connected, with traffickers and smugglers often using legitimate goods to conceal their commodities – just like in the Italian amphetamine bust. Yet the global trade in legitimate goods has declined sharply during the pandemic and is forecast to be down 10% year on year in 2020. So what is going on?
Risk and reward
To some extent, illicit traffic will be more visible to authorities because legal trade flows have shrunk and there is additional checking at national borders. The seizures are also a sign of criminals taking greater risks because they can make higher returns on scarce goods. In the UK, criminals have been smuggling drugs in bulk because it’s harder to smuggle lots of smaller shipments. Larger actors can often cope with the increased transaction costs, while petty smugglers sometimes end up getting pushed out of business.
Criminals have had to innovate to keep their supply chains open. A good example is concealing illegal drugs in consignments of face masks or other medical supplies. We are also seeing changes in the modes of transport that smugglers are using. Some activities that usually move by air or road – certain wildlife trafficking, for example – have switched to rail and maritime routes.
Shipping is more attractive because most seaports have continued to operate. In some cases, illicit trade on ships has increased. For example, the port of Antwerp in Belgium reports that cocaine shipments from Latin America have risen.
Yet there have also been drawbacks to maritime smuggling during the pandemic, including cargo congestion at seaports and reduced capacity because of coronavirus restrictions on vessels and crews. Trains, on the other hand, have been running relatively unscathed. They are also less scrutinised by officials and transporting more legal cargo than usual. Hence rail routes from China to Europe have become an attractive alternative for transporting counterfeit consumer goods, for example.
To the extent that smugglers have identified new routes and methods for moving illicit goods, or acquired new knowledge and skills, some of these techniques might well continue after the pandemic.
Sales and production
Criminals have had to learn new techniques of concealment and evasion in making and selling their contraband. There have been reports of drug dealers posing as key workers to move freely in the UK, using props like NHS badges or high-vis vests.
Before the crisis, there was already a growing problem of criminals posting small parcels of illicit goods in the mail. This seems even more popular in some places during the pandemic – mail deliveries of recreational drugs in Shanghai have risen, for instance.
Online trading has long been the main platform for illicit goods, and this too has grown in 2020. At least 100,000 new websites have emerged since March selling COVID-related substandard or fake medical items. There are also signs of more counterfeit consumer goods selling online, including fake car parts and accessories. Demand for counterfeits is likely to keep rising as the economy worsens, and because some legitimate goods are more scarce than usual.
Manufacturing of illicit products was temporarily disrupted early in the pandemic. Chinese criminals couldn’t make counterfeit luxuries, for example, or export the usual chemical supplies for making fentanyl, but they were back to business as usual within a few weeks.
Illicit manufacturing did not change as dramatically as other aspects of the trade, partially because it is less flexible. The average producer of counterfeit handbags cannot quickly re-focus on making fake pharmaceuticals. In contrast, a new route for transporting illegal goods can move everything from drugs to wildlife to counterfeit luxuries.
Counterfeiting and smuggling have been made easier by the more dispersed supply chains in our globalised world. Yet these networks are likely to shrink after the pandemic as multinationals bring some manufacturing nearer home to be less vulnerable to the kind of trade restrictions seen in 2020. Indeed, this “reshoring” started before COVID-19, and could make smuggling and counterfeiting more difficult.
Shorter and simpler supply chains for legitimate goods will most affect illicit products that are smuggled on the back of them. This would include not only things like drugs concealed in shipping containers but also counterfeit consumer goods “sneaked” into authentic consignments of the same product and sold as the real thing. On the other hand, counterfeits that can be distinguished from the brand-name product usually rely on an independent supply chain.
Deglobalisation is bad news for China-based criminals, since they produce most of the world’s counterfeits. They will certainly have to adapt to some companies relocating and diversifying their supply chains and doing more due diligence about their suppliers.
Yet it is difficult to guarantee the ethical standards of your business partners even with greater due diligence, particularly if the economic fallout of the pandemic reduces the alternatives. There are also indications that for practical reasons, China’s status as the workshop of the world is unlikely to change dramatically. And even if shorter supply chains make a big difference to the illicit trade, it may just motivate criminals to come up with new ways to meet demand. It may just displace illicit supply chains to places such as Turkey, Thailand and India.
Alexander Kupatadze is a Lecturer in Transnational Crime at King’s College London. This article appears courtesy of The Conversation and may be found in its original form here.
In June, a UK Royal Navy destroyer and Dutch Royal Navy ship safely moored in Odessa, Ukraine, were spoofed to locations off-shore of a Russian naval base on Crimea. One week later, it was a US Navy ship moored in the same port that was spoofed (above). These are interesting cases in several ways. First, how […]
A massive fire broke out at the Port of Beirut on Thursday, incinerating a warehouse full of tires and oil within the port’s free zone. The same area was heavily damaged in the ammonium nitrate explosion that leveled the central port area and the adjacent waterfront on August 4. According to Lebanon’s civil defense agency, […]
Over the course of the past five days, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority arranged a medical intervention for an injured aboard a freighter in the Indian Ocean. On Saturday evening, the Spliethoff tweendecker Dolfijngracht called for assistance while under way about 1,000 nauical miles off the coast of Western Australia. A crewmember had sustained serious […]
The UK government’s new post-Brexit tariff regime will result in both winners and losers. The new regime is set to replace the European Union’s Common External Tariff from the end of the Brexit Transition Period on December 31, 2020. The UK’s commitment to the ongoing Brexit process and ending the UK’s transition from EU membership […]
The First DP2, Twin-Hulled SOV in the World, NB72 Groene Wind met the Sea on September 29. 2020 in Yalova, Turkey. The Groene Wind will be directly chartered to Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy for the maintenance of the Rentel and Mermaid & Seastar (known as SeaMade) offshore wind farms in Belgium. This is the first DP2, […]
The U-Freight Group (UFL), with its considerable involvement in eCommerce logistics, says that the latest statistics showing that global e-commerce sales hit $25.6 trillion in 2018 are a further vindication of its decision to enter this sector of the international freight market several years ago. The latest available estimates, up 8% from 2017, were recently […]
DSV Belgium has solid experience in the transport of pharmaceutical products for different customers. With a pharma hub based at Brussels Airport a lot of experience and know-how has been built up over the years. Last weekend, the forwarder handled one hundred million mouth masks, an important milestone for its Belgian organisation that has put […]
With close to 100 daily cargo flights operated to a destination network spanning more than 65 cities across six continents, Emirates SkyCargo is delivering essential supplies and commodities to people around the world. The air cargo carrier is currently operating 11 Boeing 777 freighter aircraft, each with a capacity to transport about 100 tonnes of […]
Operators can continue to use pilots and other crew members who have unable to comply with certain training, recent experience, testing, and checking requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak in support of essential operations. Additionally, this Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) provides regulatory relief to certain persons and pilot schools unable to meet duration and […]
The naval forces of the US and Bahrain recently staged a joint force training exercise which showcased the interoperability between coalition warships operating I the Arabian Gulf. Coalition Task Force Sentinel executed combined exercise Sentinel Shield supporting Sentry and Sentinel patrols in the coalition’s area of operations. The guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones and […]
Astral Aviation has increased its intra-African network with cargo freighters during the pandemic. While there has been a reduction in capacity to, from, and within Africa, which has been caused by a stoppage of passenger flights and limited frequencies on freighter aircraft, Astral Aviation continues to operate cargo freighters from its Nairobi hub to 13 destinations […]
Callan Marine is serving as the prime contractor to the Texas Department of Transportation for a maintenance dredging project located at the Bolivar Ferry Terminal, in Galveston, Texas. Work began in May and is estimated to be complete in late July 2020. The project consists of the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of material and […]
Best known as a leading passenger airport serving Germany’s most populated federal state North Rhine-Westphalia, Düsseldorf has become transformed into a vital distribution point, during the COVID 19 pandemic, for medical equipment and other life-saving goods, mostly from China. Gerton Hulsman, managing director of cargo operations, reports that the handling teams are working hard to […]
Emirates SkyCargo has expanded its weekly scheduled cargo flight operations to cover 75 destinations across six continents. Through its wider reach, Emirates SkyCargo is able to transport essential commodities and other urgently needed cargo more rapidly across the world, allowing exporters and importers across markets to benefit from direct access to widebody cargo capacity. Some […]
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an accident that occurred on April 15, 2019, involving the towing vessel DeJeanne Maria which struck the end of a submerged dredge pipeline while pushing two spud barges to the Gulf of Mexico. The incident occurred on the Mississippi River in Pass […]
Global commercial aviation charter company Albion Aviation Group is reporting that it is seeing a considerable uptake in its professional cargo broker training courses from the current global pandemic crisis and surge in charter demand. “We have completed a number webinar courses for a whole of host of companies, looking to manage their own cargo […]