The United Kingdom carried out its largest-ever heroin bust at the Port of Felixstowe last week on August 30. Officers from the Border Force as well as the National Crime Agency (NCA) discovered a shipping container loaded with 1.3 tons of the drug stowed aboard the Maersk Gibraltar. This record-setting bust had a street value of £120 million ($148 million).
News of this discovery was kept silent until authorities could follow the shipping container’s planned path to Antwerp in an attempt to discover more details about those behind the shipment.
“The smugglers had hidden the drugs within a cover load of towels, stitching the 1 kg blocks of heroin inside some of the towels,” said Jenny Sharp, Border Force assistant director at Felixstowe. “In total, it took my officers nearly six hours — working in the early hours of Saturday morning — to remove the drugs.”
Authorities returned the shipping container to the Maersk vessel after removing all of the hidden heroin and proceeded to track the ship’s progress until it docked in the Belgian port city on September 1st. Working collaboratively, the British and Dutch authorities were able to track the container after it made landfall. The shipping container made its way by truck to a warehouse located in Rotterdam where police arrested four people unloading the now empty container.
By foiling the shipment, organized crime syndicates have been denied tens of millions of pounds of profits, marking an impressive win for Europe in the war against drugs.
Is Globalization to Blame?
The world has gotten smaller with the advent of the internet and increased international trade. This phenomenon, often referred to as globalization, has had a marked impact on nearly every economy. As more and more businesses start to operate on an international scale, efficiencies law-abiding shippers receive from moving larger shipments across oceans provide the same cost-saving opportunities to drug smugglers.
In 2012, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) produced a policy paper that predicted that the global shipping industry “would be used for the transport of narcotics, arms and other illicit cargo.” Container shipping was called out in the paper to be a specific risk. The nature of maritime trade makes it difficult for authorities to monitor and the scale of container shipping means that there are many opportunities for smugglers to capitalize on.
According to the report, “Containerization provides trafficking with the same cost- and time-saving transport mechanisms that have allowed the world’s multinational companies to deliver their products quickly and cheaply, penetrate new markets and expand their global customer base.”
Blockchain and Tracking Technologies Can Help Curb Illegal Activity
New technologies like blockchain and advanced tracking systems may make drug smuggling via containers harder for organized crime groups. As technology like RFID, GPS tracking, gate check, and connections through transportation management systems make tracking easier for companies (and by extension the police), it will be harder for smugglers to hide their activity.
Container tracking is still a new frontier for many companies who have been accustomed to limited or zero visibility to their inbound shipments across the ocean. As more and more companies adopt tracking technologies, it becomes easier for everyone to understand exactly where individual containers originated from, stopped, and may have potentially had their contents altered.
The level of international trade we see in 2019 is still a relatively new occurrence. For example, international trade with China was practically non-existent in the 1980’s. Now, China represents trillions of dollars’ worth of global trade. Many manufacturers have moved production offshore to countries with cheaper labor costs as well. Increasing international trade will undoubtedly result in an increase of international smuggling. As technology continues to advance, however, there is hope that new tools will become accessible to every company to help fight drug smuggling.