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Drug trafficking via freight containers a major challenge

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MUMBAI : The emerging trend of international criminal syndicates using the containerised trade networks for trafficking drugs has posed a major challenge to the enforcement agencies in the region. In the past one year, about 3,500 kg of drugs, mostly heroin, has been seized from freight containers in the country.

The latest case which triggered an alarm was reported a few days ago when the Sri Lanka Customs seized more than 300 kg of cocaine from four containers destined to an Indian port. The contraband was being smuggled in the garb of scrap metal. The ship had reached the Colombo port from Panama via Belgium and Dubai.

‘Common ploy’

“It is likely that the contraband was meant for another destination, as cocaine consumption is not that high in India. Drug traffickers make false declarations in the bill of lading to avoid raising any suspicion. This is a common ploy. However, the case reveals how drugs is getting into the containerised trade, making the job of enforcement agencies more difficult,” said a Customs official.

In a similar case in April 2021, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had seized 300 kg of cocaine from a container that landed at the Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu. That container had also originated from Panama and transported via Antwerp and Colombo. As it turned out, the company shown on paper to be the importer was not in the know. One conduit was arrested in Chennai for his role.

The largest ever seizure of about 3,000 kg of heroin was made by the DRI from two containers at the Mundra port in Gujarat last September. Declared as a consignment of semi-processed talc imported by the Vijayawada-based Aashi Trading Company from Hasan Hussain Limited in Kandahar in Afghanistan, it has been shipped from Bandar Abbas port in Iran.

NIA probe

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) later took over the probe and filed a charge-sheet against 16 people, including 11 Afghan nationals, four Indians and an Iranian facilitator. Ten accused have been arrested so far. The agency has also found that accused Hussain and Hassan of the export firm have links with some banned terror outfits in Pakistan.

In October last year, the DRI seized over 25 kg of heroin from a container, and in July 2021 about 300 kg of heroin from some containers, both at Navi Mumbai’s Nhava Sheva port. The containers in the second case had originated from the Bandar Abbas port in Iran, declared as talcum powder.

At the same port, in August 2020, the DRI seized 191 kg of heroin and made several arrests. That consignment — declared as an Ayurvedic product, mulethi (licorice), and concealed in plastic pipes painted to resemble bamboos — had been sent via Chabahar in Iran. It had been booked under a fictitious name, shown as a resident of Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Following several large seizures, the agency has of late been detecting significantly lower quantities of drugs concealed in the containers carrying legal goods. A few weeks ago, the DRI seized about 35 kg of heroin (declared as rock salt) at the Tughlaqabad inland container depot in Delhi. At least two persons were arrested from Goa in that case. Another 2.50 kg of the stuff was found in the imported juice bottles.

Call for better coordination

“The situation has necessitated a more efficient coordination among various agencies in India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for maintaining and sharing on real-time basis the data on shipments. Effective collaboration with shipping firms and liner agents, which facilitate the containerised trade, is equally important. There is also a need to properly verify the credentials of Import-Export Code (IEC) holders, as unscrupulous elements take their services for smuggling in illegal items like drugs,” said the official.

Another official said: “Real-time data on shipments are essential to develop an Artificial Intelligence-based algorithm for zeroing in on suspect consignments, which will be a force multiplier for the enforcement agencies. Although scanners are of little help when it comes to detecting drugs, they should be installed at all the ports to check smuggling.”

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