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Venezuelan drivers left frustrated as counter-fuel trafficking payment system falls flat

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Venezuelan motorists faced frustration yesterday as the test rollout of a gasoline sales system designed to prevent rampant fuel smuggling failed to perform on its first day of operation.

President Nicolas Maduro has said the introduction of new payment machines is a vital step towards the government’s goal of increasing its domestic fuel prices to international levels.

Drivers lining up to use the new machines at gas stations close to the country’s border with Colombia said many of the units had not been installed or were not functioning properly.

Oil-producing Venezuela has offered its citizens heavily-subsidised petrol for decades, resulting in its fuel prices remaining relatively flat for years, despite the country facing runaway hyperinflation.

Maduro last month said the nation’s fuel prices needed to rise to international levels to prevent smugglers cheating the country out of billions of dollars by trafficking gasoline to neighbouring countries.

Organised fuel trafficking gangs are currently able to quadruple their money by smuggling gasoline across the country’s borders, in a racket that carries far less severe penalties than other illegal activities such as drug dealing.

Illicit fuel smuggling has become more lucrative than drug smuggling in Venezuela.

Speaking on Monday, Maduro said fuel prices will rise to international levels by October, in a move that will prevent the country’s drivers from filling up their tanks nearly 9,000 times for the equivalent price of a cup of coffee.

“During the course of September, October, once that system is working, we will establish the subsidy systems and the price of gasoline will be set at the international price,” Reuters quotes Maduro as saying during a televised broadcast.

The huge hike in prices is intended to prevent traffickers making massive profits for smuggling fuel out of Venezuela to be sold at market value in neighbouring countries, as the nation attempts to boost its coffers in the face of falling oil production.

It is estimated that the Venezuelan economy loses some $18 billion every year to fuel trafficking.

Maduro has promised that citizens holding a state-issued identification card will continue to be able to access direct fuel subsidies, but many Venezuelans have refused to use the ID cards, alleging they are used by officials to monitor them.

“Anyone who does not respond to the call for this census, who does not wish to participate in the direct subsidy, will have to pay for gasoline at the international rate,” Maduro said.

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Chinese medicine could bring about destruction of half the world’s donkeys, new report reveals

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A new report from UK-based animal welfare charity the Donkey Sanctuary has revealed that more than half of the world’s donkey population could be wiped out over the five years due to the animal’s body parts being used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Noting that Donkey populations are being decimated in multiple countries across Africa, South America and Asia, the report claims that millions of donkeys are being slaughtered by wildlife traffickers who sell their skins.

Illicit wildlife traders even target pregnant mares, foals and sick donkeys, which are stolen before being transported and killed.

Warning that the species is now “in a state of global crisis”, and that the supply of donkey skins cannot meet demand in China, the Donkey Sanctuary has called for an urgent halt to the largely unregulated global trade in donkey skins before donkey populations are completely annihilated in some parts of the world.

The gelatine in donkey hides is a key ingredient in ejiao, which has been used as a traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years by those who believe it improves blood circulation and can be used to treat conditions such as anaemia, despite there being no clinical evidence to support this.

Over recent years, ejiao has become popular with China’s burgeoning middle class, and is increasingly seen as a wellness product that is added to all manner of products including face creams, sweets and liqueurs.

Numerous claims are made about the benefits of consuming ejiao, with proponents suggesting it can boost libido, aid sleep, prevent cancer and make people look younger.

No evidence exists to support any of these claims.

According to the Donkey Sanctuary, China needs some 4.8 million donkey hides a year for domestic ejiao production, which is driving traffickers in Africa, Asia and South America to source and sell skins to Chinese traders.

As well as seriously threatening donkey numbers in a number of countries, the illicit trade in the animal’s body parts increases the risk of the spread of dangerous diseases such as anthrax and equine diseases due to unhygienic practices during transport and slaughter.

Commenting on the findings of the charity’s report, Mike Baker, Chief Executive of the Donkey Sanctuary, said: “This is suffering on an enormous and unacceptable scale. This suffering is not just confined to donkeys as it also threatens the livelihood of millions of people.

“The skin trade is the biggest threat to donkey welfare we have ever seen. Urgent action needs to be taken.”

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Boy aged 16 arrested on US border with remote-control car and methamphetamine worth $100,000

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US border control officers have arrested a 16-year-old boy on suspicion of using a remote-control car to smuggle methamphetamine estimated to the worth more than $100,000 across the US/Mexico border.

Customs investigators allegedly saw the boy close to the border carrying two duffel bags and called in additional agents to help apprehend him.

One officer noticed the boy attempting to hide himself in a bush close to the secondary border wall, where he was found to be in possession of a remote-control car.

While questioning the boy, who identified himself as US citizen, officers discovered that the two bags he was carrying contained 50 packages of methamphetamine.

In total, the drugs he was in possession of weighed more than 25kgs and had an estimated street value of $106,096.

Customs agents arrested the boy and took him to a nearby station to face drug smuggling charges.

In a statement on the US Customs and Border Control (CBP) website, San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Douglas Harrison said: “I am extremely proud of the agents’ heightened vigilance and hard work in stopping this unusual smuggling scheme.”

Last August, CBP officers arrested 25-year-old man carrying nearly 7kgs of methamphetamine after agents spotted a remote-controlled drone flying over the US/Mexico border.

Drones are now routinely used by criminals to sneak contraband across borders and into restricted sites such as prisons.

Last month, a man from the US state of Georgia was handed a four-year jail term after he was caught attempting to fly a drug-laden drone into Jimmy Autry State Prison.

Eric Lee Brown, 35, admitted one count of operating an aircraft eligible for registration knowing that it was not registered, and pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal to attempting to use the drone to drop a large bag of cannabis into the jail.

Speaking after Brown was sentenced, US Attorney Charlie Peeler said: “Smugglers using drones, or other means, to move illegal contraband and drugs into our prisons will face prosecution and penalties in the Middle District of Georgia.”

In April 2018, it was reported that customs officers in China had smashed a criminal gang that used drones to smuggle iPhones estimated to be worth $79.8 million from Hong Kong to the south-eastern city of Shenzhen.

In what was thought to have been the first recorded example of cross-border smuggling facilitated by drone in China, investigators detained 29 people on both sides of the border and seized two drones and thousands of Apple devices.

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Italian police arrest 23 suspects and recover 10,000 cultural items in archaeological trafficking crackdown

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A major international police operation led by investigators in Italy has resulted in the recovery 10,000 stolen cultural items and the arrest of 23 suspected antiquities smugglers.

Operation Achei was led by the Italian national police force’s Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

The initiative involved input from several other agencies, including Europol and law enforcement organisations from a number of other countries, namely the UK, Germany and Serbia.

Police in Italy started a probe into the gang’s activities back in 2017 while investigating the looting of archaeological sites in Calabria, southern Italy, where valuable cultural items from the Greek and Roman period were being stolen.

Members of the gang are said to have used bulldozers and metal detectors to locate the items they stole, before selling them on to to a network of buyers across Europe.

Investigators discovered the smuggling network was being run by an organised crime group headed up by a pair of Italian nationals living in the province of Crotone.

The two ringleaders led a network of looters, fences, intermediaries and mules who operated from various locations across Italy, as well as key facilitators working in locations such as Djion, Munich, London and Vršac.

Detectives in Italy said they believe the gang was involved in the illicit trafficking of antique items including vases, jewellery and jars that dated back as far as the 4th century BC.

As well as the arrest of the 23 suspects, the operation also led to a further 80 individuals from the UK, France, Germany and Serbia being placed under investigation.

In a statement, Europol said: “The damage caused to the Italian cultural heritage by this criminal group is very significant as it the criminals were looting archaeological sites for many years.

“Europol Analysis Project FURTUM supported the investigation by coordinating the information exchange, holding several operational meetings, preparing the action day and providing on-the-spot analytical support in Italy to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases.

“Eurojust supported the execution of the European Investigation Orders and arranged a coordination centre to follow the action in real-time.”

Back in July, a major operation run by Europol and Interpol targeting the trafficking of cultural artefacts involving customs and police officers from 29 countries resulted in the recovery of 18,000 items and the arrest of 59 suspects.

Operation Pandora III saw investigators carry out inspections and raids at numerous locations across the globe, making 49 arrests and imposing 67 administrative sanctions at auction houses, art galleries, museums and private houses.

 

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