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

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counter-fuel trafficking payment system

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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Over 200 held in Interpol-backed operation targeting Balkan human trafficking networks

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Interpol-backed operation targeting Balkan human trafficking networks

An Interpol-backed operation targeting human trafficking and migrant smuggling rings in the Balkans has resulted in the arrest of 236 organised crime network members.

Operation Theseus, an eight-day initiative that took place last month, involved 3,000 immigration and law enforcement agents from countries including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Moldova, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey.

As well as resulting in the detention of scores of suspected members of organised immigration crime gangs, the operation also saw specialist units dispatched to smuggling hotspots such as border points, rail and bus stations and entertainment districts rescue 89 victims of human trafficking.

The crackdown also resulted in the detection of 2,000 migrants.

Over the course of the campaign, participating investigators carried out 2.5 million passenger checks and 54,000 vehicle assessments and monitored a total of 1,500 flights.

Raids carried out during the operation resulted in the seizure of more than 1,500 counterfeit passports and national ID cards, 30 boats, 200 inflatable boats and buoys, 10 firearms, 60kgs of drugs and $200,000 in cash.

Commenting on the success of the operation, Interpol chief Jürgen Stock said in a statement: “Organised crime groups prey on the vulnerable and help them cross borders illegally for hefty sums.

“For some, the relationship ends on arrival but for others, it is only just the beginning of a bleak future of exploitation.

“Interpol’s role is to help police identify and break the networks behind this traffic and ensure their activities become more risky and less lucrative.”

Interpol said the operation was part of its wider efforts to disrupt human trafficking and migrant smuggling in the region, and was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

Separately, French and Dutch police have broken up a major organised immigration crime network that is thought to have smuggled some 10,000 Kurdish migrants into the UK.

The Europol-backed operation resulted in the detention of 23 suspected members of the gang, and the seizure of guns and cars.

Members of the network are said to have charged migrants as much as €7 000 ($7,732) each to be smuggled into the UK in refrigerated trucks.

In a statement, Europol said: “On the action day, Europol deployed two experts on-the-spot, one in France and one in the Netherlands, to cross-check operational information in real-time. This case was also developed as part of EMPACT JOT Dunqett operational action.”

 

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US big cat dealer jailed for 22 years for plotting to have animal rights activist killed and shooting tigers

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US big cat dealer jailed for 22 years

A former zookeeper from the US state of Oklahoma has been handed a 22-year jail term after being convicted of plotting to have a rival murdered and killing tigers.

Big cat dealer Joseph Maldonado-Passage, who also performed as a country and western singer, was this week found guilty of attempting to hire somebody to kill prominent animal rights activist Carole Baskin, who was critical of the manner in which he ran his sanctuary for abandoned animals.

Maldonado-Passage, who also went by the nickname Joe Exotic on account of his work with big cats, attempted to commission Baskin’s murder from an undercover agent working for the FBI, which was at the time investigating him for offering tigers for sale without the proper permits.

Prosecutors said that in November 2017, Maldonado-Passage offered $3,000 as an upfront payment for the murder of Baskin, with the promise of thousands more once she was dead.

Maldonado-Passage wanted Baskin to be killed after she secured a million-dollar judgment against his park.

The jury hearing the case was also told Maldonado-Passage personally shot and killed five tigers in October 2017 without a veterinarian present and in violation of the Endangered Species Act in order to make space for new animals.

Just a few hours after being sent out to consider the case against Maldonado-Passage, the jury returned to deliver guilty verdicts on two murder-for-hire counts, eight wildlife trafficking counts, and nine Endangered Species Act counts.

In a statement posted to Facebook in which he made clear he planned to appeal the sentence, Maldonado-Passage wrote: “I still maintain my innocence and looking (sic) forward in the upcoming days to my attorneys filing my appeal and moving onto the next step in this nightmare.”

Edward Grace, Assistant Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said: “Wildlife crime is often connected with other criminal activity such as fraud, narcotics, money laundering and smuggling. Maldonado-Passage added murder-for-hire.

“The service along with our partners will continue to bring to justice those involved in wildlife trafficking and other assorted crimes.

“The successful outcome of this investigation is the result of working jointly with the US Attorney’s Office, Western District of Oklahoma, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to ensure the protection of a federally protected species.”

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European crackdown on counterfeit and smuggled pharmaceuticals results in seizure of 34.5 million drug units

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European crackdown on counterfeit and smuggled pharmaceuticals

A coalition of European law enforcement agencies has participated in a Europol-backed crackdown on the online and real-world distribution and sale of counterfeit and smuggled pharmaceuticals.

Led by police in Finland and France, the operation involved investigators from 11 European Union members states, Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The crackdown was also supported by agents from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

In a four-day operation that kicked off on 15 October last year, the results of which can only be revealed now for operational reasons, officers taking part in the crackdown broke up six organised crime networks involved in the distribution and sale of fake and smuggled pharmaceuticals.

The initiative saw investigators carry out 112 property raids across several countries, and make nearly 50 arrests in nations including Cyprus, Finland, France, Hungary, Portugal, Spain and the UK.

In total, the operation resulted in the confiscation of 34.5 million units of counterfeit and smuggled medicines, doping products and other substances estimated to be worth some €2.6 million ($2.88 million).

These included antihistamines, anxiolytics, erectile dysfunction pills, hormone and metabolic regulators, narcotics, painkillers, antioestrogens, antivirals and hypnotics.

In a statement announcing the results of the operation, Europol said that organised criminals routinely misuse pseudoephedrine, an active ingredient of nasal/sinus decongestant medicines to make methamphetamine.

“Drug addicts use psychotropics, which are mostly made from hypnotic medicines, to replace opioid drugs like heroin,” the agency said.

“Pseudoephedrine and psychotropic medicines were among the biggest seizures made on the action days.

“Stolen with fake medical prescriptions or acquired with the collaboration of complacent doctors and pharmacists, most of these medicines were diverted from the legitimate supply chain. Several thousands of the seized medicines were falsified.”

Separately, the leaders of seven African nations have agreed to draft new laws to criminalise the sale of counterfeit drugs.

At a two-day summit on counterfeit medicines in the Togolese capital of Lome, the heads of state of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Togo and Uganda signed an agreement to bolster cooperation between governments and encourage other African nations to join the initiative.

The summit was organised by the Brazzavile Foundation, which is expected to lead the agreed “Lomé Initiative” to end the illegal trafficking and use of counterfeit drugs.

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