On 14 October, GIFP components MASIF and SEACOP participated in the 24-Hour Conference on Organized Crime. With more than 330 speakers from over 55 countries, and running consecutively for 25 hours, the conference brought together academics, researchers, and practitioners to exchange on the latest research on organised crime.
MASIF and SEACOP presented the panel “Emerging transatlantic maritime threats – converging flows and actors”, based on the Maritime Threat Assessment currently being carried out. Experts presented the latest findings from fieldwork carried out, with a focus on the convergence of drug trafficking and environmental crime, namely gold and timber trafficking.
MASIF Team Leader, Marija Atanaskova introduced the context of the Maritime Threat Assessment. A previous MASIF study highlighted the convergence of organised crime and revealed a wide range of commodities being trafficked through the traditional cocaine route from South America and the Caribbean to Europe. There was thus a need for a more in-depth focus on maritime trafficking, particularly non-narcotics flows. The report analyses illicit maritime flows, licit and illicit stakeholders involved in each type of trafficking, the modus operandi, as well as enablers and drivers of trafficking. While transatlantic maritime flows are closely associated with cocaine trafficking, there are many other commodities flowing and converging along these routes.
MASIF expert, Dr Sasha Jesperson followed by contextualising maritime trafficking in Latin America, examining the threats it poses, and the challenges that exist when it comes to combatting it. The threat of maritime trafficking is not just of illicit commodities being shipped to destination countries but has wider environmental, socio-economic, and geopolitical consequences. The research found that drug trafficking in Latin America is increasingly linked with environmental crimes, as routes used for drug trafficking are also used for timber and gold smuggling. Timber and gold trafficking have devastating effects on the environment, leading to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and soil and air pollution, particularly affecting the Amazon rainforest.
Latin America and the Caribbean also face a flow of firearms. These are not transatlantic flows, with firearms staying in the region empowering organised criminal groups and fuelling violence. Dr. Jesperson emphasised the growth of Chinese interests in the region, which include both legal and criminal ventures. Chinese criminal actors are involved in the production of new psychoactive substances, synthetic drugs, and human smuggling. They co-exist in an increasingly symbiotic manner with other criminal groups operating in the area, namely Mexican cartels.
Overall, maritime trafficking underpins the global criminal logistics network. The maritime environment is particularly susceptible to trafficking, complicating responses. Most illicit goods are transported by sea concealed among legitimate cargo in containers, making ports particularly attractive to corruption efforts. Coasts are challenging to monitor and control, and the use of certain kinds of vessels additionally complicates law enforcement responses – go-fast vessels, for instance, can move between Trinidad and Venezuela in seven to ten minutes, which is faster than the response-time of authorities.
To better illustrate the scope of the problem, Dr Rune Henriksen presented a couple of case-studies. The first focused on timber trafficking in Peru, a large problem as evidenced by the Yacu Kallpa case in 2015. While there is no official figure on illicit trafficking of timber out of Peru, the initial estimates place it at half a billion US dollars a year, which corresponds to five times the worth of Peru’s official exports. Timber is trafficked out of Peru via fake operating plants and using fake transport documents, often produced in sawmills across the country. Licit and illicit timber is frequently trafficked together, primarily leaving from the port of Pucallpa to either Mexico or China, two countries known for accepting high-risk or red-list timber.
In 2015, Peru captured the largest load of illegal timber in the country’s history aboard a large container ship called the Yacu Kallpa. The total shipment was worth about seven million US dollars. It was a successful multi-agency investigation, with a range of actors in the logging chain being found guilty. However, since this historic capture in 2015, there has been a backsliding in investigations into illicit timber. There was a reduction of collection of information at export points, making it more difficult to trace the timber supply chain. Furthermore, the Forest and Wildlife Agency faced severe pressure to stop carrying out investigations into timber trafficking. This case demonstrated that countries may possess the agencies, data, and capabilities to intercept illegal timber shipments, but may ultimately lack the political will. Overall, there is a lack of attention paid to timber across the supply chain, and a lack of political will upstream and in transit countries.
Mr. Henriksen also examined gold trafficking which, like timber trafficking, often flies under the radar of law enforcement agencies as it is less problematic, and thus, less prioritised. Nonetheless, gold trafficking is also a serious issue. Gold is useful to organised criminal groups, as it is a currency that is difficult to trace and can be used to launder money, it is easy to store, and can be used to pay in kind for commodities or corruption. In addition, the local environmental and social fallout of gold mining is heavy – artisanal gold mines often use mercury, and gold mining is associated with labour and sexual exploitation. In Colombia, there has been a transition from drugs to gold smuggling as a result of the pressure from the War on Drugs and the increase in gold prices. With the growing interlinkage of local labour and gold mining, interfering in this dynamic can lead to social conflict. What can be highlighted from both case studies is the primordial need for political will to target these flows; however, there is also lack of knowledge on the severity and scale of their impact.
The examination of riverine trafficking for the Maritime Threat Assessment pointed to the increased use of rivers not only to traffic drugs, but also to assist with the logistics of drugs trafficking, as explained by Dr Martin Verrier. The Napo River in Ecuador, for instance, is used to transport cocaine to main highways, but is also used to transit chemical precursors, illicit timber, and other illicit commodities through remote places with no infrastructure. The origin of illicit flows in the region was described by Dr Verrier as having largely emerged from the enabling environment created by contraband and counterfeit trafficking, for example tobacco trafficking in Paraguay. Finally, he stressed that illicit flows should not be analysed through the lens of individual commodities, but rather as networked commodities.
The last speaker of the panel, SEACOP Team Leader Dominqiue Bucas, focused on the law enforcement challenges in responding to maritime trafficking. He specifically focused on the numerous challenges in the field related to identifying environmental crimes – both operational and technical difficulties, such as the large quantity of flows, and the specific knowledge needed for document analysis to ascertain timber and gold origins. The geography is an added difficulty, with large distances between forests and sea, and the coordination between different kinds of law enforcement agencies. Mr. Bucas also highlighted the lack of will in responding to maritime threats. Officers and agencies have traditionally focused on drugs, primarily cocaine, deprioritising other types of trafficking. He finalised by stressing the need for reports like the Maritime Threat Assessment and webinars like the OC24, as results and lessons-learned need to be disseminated to a wide range of stakeholders, to raise awareness of particular issues and developing targeted responses. Practitioners and policymakers need to be informed by up-to-date and comprehensive analyses of organised crime and illicit flows. Through this participation, MASIF and SEACOP contributed to the dissemination of valuable knowledge amongst stakeholders, improving the understanding of threats posed by OCGs. A better understanding of these threats may also promote political will in combatting these flows, an impediment that remains.