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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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British gang that built subterranean drug factory jailed for importing cannabis worth £15 million

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Seven members of a British drug trafficking gang have been jailed for smuggling cannabis worth £15 million ($18.4 million) into the UK in shipments of lettuce.

The huge quantity of drugs the Manchester gang sneaked into the UK was smuggled on lorries across the English Channel hidden in consignments of vegetables and kitchen equipment, according to a statement from Greater Manchester Police (GMP).

Once in the country, the cannabis was transported by front companies owned by the gang to locations in Manchester, Bolton and Warrington, where it was stored in multiple lockups.

Members of the gang were also found to have constructed an underground bunker out of buried storage units on a farm in North Wales to house a subterranean cannabis farm.

Police discovered that the gang used bogus businesses as cover for the cannabis importation and cultivation conspiracy, including a fake kitchen equipment firm.

Investigators uncovered the trafficking operation after seizing 177kgs of cannabis with an estimated street value of more than £1.5 million in August 2018.

This led to a series of raids on numerous storage units across the north of England, and the discovery of the underground cannabis factory.

Gang member Michael Harley, who was living in a caravan on the farm where the underground bunker was located, admitted that the construction was built three years previously, but told detectives that cannabis production had been halted shortly afterwards as it was too wet to grow cannabis.

On Friday at Manchester Crown Court, ringleader Scott Byrne was convicted of importing cannabis and sentenced to 13 years behind bars.

Speaking after sentencing, Detective Sergeant Richard Castley of GMP’s Serious Organised Crime Group investigating team, commented: “Thanks to the excellent work of our officers and colleagues on partner forces and agencies, we have managed to bring down a vast drugs network.

“These men were responsible for attempting to import enormous amounts of cannabis into the UK; the sale of which would have been used to further criminal enterprise.

“They even went to the expense of creating a large underground complex intended for cultivating the drug.

“However, the exceptional detective work of our investigation team was able to identify and dismantle this organised crime group.

“Consignments packaged among lettuces or kitchen equipment were intercepted and prevented from finding their way onto our streets.

“Drugs blight communities and ruin lives. Their sale is used to further the activities of organised criminal gangs who have no regard for the safety of the public or the rule of law.”

 

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Transnational crime syndicates flood Southeast Asia to exploit weak regional governance, UN study warns

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A new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has cautioned that organised crime networks operating in Southeast Asia are generating record and even dangerous levels profit.

In a study titled Transnational Organised Crime in Southeast Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact,  the agency warns that recent law enforcement activity in the region and its surrounding areas has resulted in illicit groups altering their trafficking routes while transferring and scaling up their activities in locations with poor governance, partially around border areas.

Synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine have become the most valuable illicit market for crime syndicates active in the Southeast Asia region, partly on account of law enforcement action in China forcing narcotics producers to look for new production bases.

According to the report, transnational organised crime networks operating in Burma in cooperation with militias and ethnic armed groups are manufacturing and trafficking both crystalline and tablet methamphetamine.

The study also reveals that the region has become a hub for the global trade in counterfeit consumer goods and illicit pharmaceuticals, noting that Southeast Asia is a key transit point for illicit tobacco products and bogus medicines.

Elsewhere, the report reveals motorcycle gangs from Australia are relocating to the region in order to set up new chapters involved in drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering and other crimes.

The Australian gangs are said to have moved into the region to set up bases for their methamphetamine and drug precursor chemical operations after coming under increased pressure from police back in their home country.

UNODC concludes that the growing power and influence of organised crime in Southeast Asia is allowing illicit syndicates to use their financial muscle to further corrupt and undermine the rule of law, and that these groups now represent a primary threat to the public security, health and sustainable development of the region.

Speaking as the report was unveiled, UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas commented: “Organised crime groups are generating tens of billions of dollars in Southeast Asia from the cross-border trafficking and smuggling of illegal drugs and precursors, people, wildlife, timber and counterfeit goods.

“Profits have expanded and illicit money is increasingly moving through the regional casino industry and other large cash flow businesses.

“Southeast Asia has an organised crime problem, and it is time to coalesce around solutions to address the conditions that have allowed illicit businesses to grow, and to secure and cooperate along borders.”

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Colombian man caught with half kilo of cocaine under wig at Barcelona airport

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Police working at Barcelona’s El Prat international airport have arrested a man who was found to have half a kilo of cocaine concealed beneath an ill-fitting hairpiece.

Officers spotted the man after he arrived on a flight from the Colombian capital of Bogota.

They noticed that he was acting in a nervous manner and appeared to be sporting a disproportionately large hairpiece under a hat.

After taking him to one side for a search, investigators discovered a package of white powder that had been stuck to the man’s head underneath the outsized toupee.

The 65-year-old was arrested immediately, and was later charged after tests confirmed that the white powder was cocaine that was estimated to be worth €30,000 ($33,390).

In one photograph released by Spain’s national police force, the man can be seen from the side wearing a wig that protrudes to an unnatural height over the top of his head.

Another shot taken from the front shows the package of cocaine clearly visible beneath the hairpiece.

In a statement cited by the Reuters news agency, Spanish police said: “There is no limit to the inventiveness of drug traffickers trying to mock controls.”

Spain, which is one of the main entry points for cocaine exported into Europe from Colombia, has seen several novel large-scale smuggling attempts over the course of the past year, the majority of which appeared to have benefitted from better planning than the wig conspiracy.

Back in June, Spanish police revealed they had arrested 11 suspected traffickers after discovering a tonne of cocaine hidden inside fake stones shipped into the country from South America.

Investigators released a video that showed officers smashing open the bogus stones to discover 785 packages of cocaine, each of which was estimated to contain more than 1kg of the drug.

Just weeks earlier, police in the country announced they had smashed a South American organised trafficking network that injected large quantities of cocaine into plastic pellets before smuggling them to three specialist laboratories in Madrid and Toledo, where the drugs would be extracted by experts who had been flown in from Colombia.

Last August, Spanish investigators intercepted 67kgs of cocaine that had been concealed inside pineapple skins.

The gang behind the plot had hollowed out fresh pineapples before filling their skins with cylinders containing as much as 7kgs of cocaine each.

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