Can smart ports restrict drug trafficking?

COVID-19 measures make maritime routes the preferred target for drug smugglers.

Seizures of large quantities of drugs such as cocaine, heroin and others at ports have increased worldwide. The increase in shipping operations coupled with large container ships that have doubled in recent years has provided an attractive means of transportation for drug dealers.

African ports are also subject to this global trend, as shown in major seizures at ports in 2019. In the port of Dakar, 798 kg of cocaine were confiscated – the largest drug shipment in this port. And in the port of Mauritius, 90 kg of cocaine was seized.

According to the latest United Nations report on drugs and crime (UNODC), drug supply chains have been disrupted in countries that have opted for harsh COVID-19 closure measures. This has increased demand and prices. The reduction in air traffic and increased road safety due to COVID-19 restrictions have led to shipments of drugs to the sea and authorities struggling to respond. Innovative technologies found in smart ports could very well be the answer.

According to the report, between January 2017 and April 2020, 88% of the cocaine, 54% of the marijuana and 37% of the amphetamines were transported by sea. As the pandemic continues, this trend is likely to increase globally and become more prominent in Africa, although information remains scarce.

According to the UNODC, 92% of opioids were transported by land until hard locks and more roadside policing led to heroin dealers increasingly using the Southern Route. This is the maritime route from Afghanistan to Europe through African ports.

Cargo ships are preferred because they offer the safest options for drug dealers

Cargo ships are preferred because they offer the safest options for drug dealers. These vessels are the cheapest means of transportation because about 90% of world trade is in the sea. Drug dealers hide the drugs among other products, making it almost impossible to detect. A popular tactic is to hide drugs between fruit and vegetable transport, as they are handled faster due to spoilage risks.

The probability that a container will be searched is low – on average about one in ten due to the large amount of transport goods. Port operators are under pressure to process large quantities of cargo in a short time.

Increasing the number of containers checked before loading seems like an obvious solution that will increase the risk for traders or smugglers. However, it is not that simple. While the likelihood of detecting illegal cargo will increase, shipping will slow down, meaning higher costs that most operators try to avoid.

Living time in African ports has, on average, been longer than two weeks. Inefficiency and high logistics costs due to a further slowdown in operations will again negatively affect the supply chains and the economies.

It presents a safety and efficiency dilemma for law enforcement and port operators. The problem can be solved by using and integrating innovative technologies found in smart gates. A smart gateway depends on solutions like automation, artificial intelligence, big data, internet of things and blockchain.

On average, about one in 10 containers is searched due to the large amount of transport goods

For example, Busan’s port in South Korea – as part of the ongoing digital transformation – will integrate a blockchain terminal-to-terminal freight transport system that is expected to prevent smuggling.

Digitization improves the efficiency and effectiveness of port operations, while increasing the security and resilience of merchants. In theory, it provides a maritime ecosystem that is defined by greater collaboration between all those involved in port operations. This includes streamlining logistics and shipping processes.

However, there are challenges. One is the high cost of new technology required for such a move. Personnel training and additional human resources expenditure must also be taken into account.

One of the technologies used to detect illegal goods is the non-intrusive inspection scanner which costs about R15 million (US $ 1 million). Costs for civil construction, scanning, fencing and security equipment amount to approximately R2 million (US $ 130 000). After adding the staff costs and the regular maintenance costs, it amounts to approximately R20 million (US $ 1.3 million).

New technology could also expose the port to new cyber risks and vulnerabilities. In 2017, for example, criminals violated the IT system of the Port of Antwerp to smuggle drugs into the country.

Drug trafficking networks continue to enforce law by using ports as key hubs

The change is also likely to lead to a shift in crime and may not disrupt the trade in isolation. Nevertheless, technological solutions are a step in the right direction and an important part of a broader approach to dealing with drug trafficking.

The digital transition process in Africa is likely to be gradual and incremental, but it needs to continue as technology becomes cheaper and more accessible over time. Port operators must proactively approach integration and plan each step ahead of time.

Drug trafficking networks continue to enforce law enforcement by using ports as key hubs. The growing demand for illicit drugs and the impact of COVID-19 closures indicate that ports will continue to be targeted by drug trafficking networks. The balance between safety and efficiency at ports will be crucial.

For African states, the challenge is even more complex. They need to match strategic investments in port infrastructure with combating drug smuggling and harnessing the power of smart technology.

Richard Chelin, researcher, ENACT and Denys Reva, research officer, ISS Pretoria

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