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Scottish scientists develop method to help wildlife crime investigators ‘fingerprint’ bird feathers in the field

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Researchers at a Scottish university have developed new technology that can read “fingerprints” from bird feathers in outdoor conditions.

In a development that could help law enforcement agencies across the globe crack down on wildlife criminals, scientists at Abertay University in Dundee have discovered that it is possible to obtain fingerprints from bird feathers even when they have been left outside exposed to the elements.

A statement issued by the university explains how previous research from PhD student Helen McMorris resulted in the discovery that it was possible to obtain fingerprints from feathers under laboratory conditions.

Describing how she hopes her research will help investigators increase the number of wildlife crime convictions in Britain, McMorris said: “At this moment in time toxicology tests can prove that a raptor has been poisoned, and you can prove that a bird has been shot through x-rays and post mortem.

“But there’s no way of telling if a human has had any contact with that bird if it’s found dead in a field or on a hillside. You have to assume there has been foul play of some description, but you can’t hone in on the actual person responsible.

“This technique potentially gives investigators the chance to prove actual human involvement in raptor persecution, be it through an identifiable fingerprint or a touch mark from a human finger that identifies exact areas of contact on the bird-of-prey.”

Now that McMorris has proved her fingerprinting technique can work outside of the lab, the university hopes the method can be used effectively by wildlife investigators in the field.

Head of Science at Abertay Dr Ben Jones said “As part of Abertay’s research in improving forensic investigation techniques, this study is an important step in moving from the laboratory closer to a real-life situation, as the technique moves from research to development for use in an investigative setting.”

According to the RSPB’s most recent report on bird crime in the UK, there were just 68 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution in Britain last year, which resulted in only four prosecutions and one conviction.

Publishing its report in September, the RSPB called on lawmakers to pass legislation to prevent the persecution of birds of prey.

In April this year, the Scottish government announced that research carried out by the Scottish Police Authority’s (SPA) Forensic Services and the University of Strathclyde had found that human DNA could be traced on bird traps that had been outside for at least 10 days, and from bird carcasses at crime scenes after at least 24 hours.

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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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