The secret to being a successful international drug smuggler has always been the ability to stay one step ahead of law enforcement authorities. This will typically involve regularly coming up with new and innovative ways in which to transport your product to the markets where they will make the most profit, all the while keeping yourself as far removed from the trafficking process as is practically possible. The fact that customs authorities in western countries are usually quick to cotton on to new trafficking methods means that drug smuggling gangs are continually forced to be as creative as they can be when it comes to dreaming up new ways of sneaking shipments through border checks. Over recent months, a new trend has emerged that appears to suggest trafficking networks are increasing paying passengers travelling on high-end cruise liners to smuggle large quantities of hard drugs such as cocaine on their behalf.
Only last week, police in Portugal and the UK revealed that they had arrested 12 people in connection with the discovery of 18kgs of cocaine on a cruise ship that had docked at Madeira. The drugs, which were said to have been stashed in empty crisp packets and ceramic bowls, were estimated to have a street value of £2 million ($2.64 million). Six of those arrested were reported to have arrived in Madeira on the MSC Opera liner, while the other suspects, including two British nationals and a Dutch citizen, had recently travelled to the island using alternative means. Members of the latter group are said to have planned to travel on separately to different European countries, suggesting that the shipment of cocaine might have been split and distributed to a number of different locations had the conspiracy not been thwarted. A spokesperson for the UK’s National Crime Agency, which is often described as Britain’s FBI, said the operation would have had a significant impact on an organised crime group attempting to get drugs into Europe.
News of the operation came just months after an aging British couple were detained in Portugal in connection with the discovery of 9kgs of cocaine on a cruise ship that had arrived in the country having travelled round South America and the Caribbean. The drugs were said to have been found in the false bottoms of four suitcases that police located in the cabin of married couple Roger and Susan Clarke, aged 72 and 70 respectively. Following the couple’s arrest, it emerged that they had previously served jail terms after being caught in possession of a substantial amount of cannabis in Norway. Speaking prior to British tabloid the Sun revealing that the pair had been on multiple expensive cruises in recent years, despite living only on Mr Clarke’s modest pension, a senior Portuguese police officer said trafficking gangs had been using elderly cruise ship passengers as drug mules on account of the fact that they are less likely to attract suspicion than younger travellers.
Nearly a year ago, a self-confessed “stupid young woman” from Canada was handed an eight-year jail term after she admitted to being part of a plot to smuggle cocaine estimated to be worth more than $21 million into Australia on a cruise ship. Dubbed the “cocaine babe” on account of her fondness for posting glamorous images of herself on social media while on her trafficking cruise, Melina Roberge was arrested in August 2016 when border force officers discovered the cocaine hidden inside a number of suitcases on the Sea Princess luxury cruise liner when it docked at Sydney Harbour. Roberge and two other Canadians admitted to attempting to import 95kgs of the drug into Australia, and being paid by members of a trafficking gang to pose as tourists on the ship while doing so.
Intelligence and tip-offs provided to law enforcement agencies appear to have been behind the discovery of a number of recent attempts by mules to smuggle drugs on cruise ships, suggesting that customs checks on the people boarding these types of vessels are not all that they could be. But with some cruises lasting for multiple weeks or even months, and with passengers on them travelling with many more pieces of luggage than they might on shorter breaks, it is easy to see why the cartels might believe cruise liners are a weak spot. This, coupled with the fact that the typical cruise line passenger does not fit the profile of a drugs mule, makes those embarking on these types of trips the perfect target for trafficking gangs looking for new ways of getting their drugs into western markets.
While mules travelling on cruise ships might not be able to move the types of quantities that smuggling cartels are able to transport when shipping their product by freight, anecdotal evidence suggests that this method might be becoming increasingly popular among trafficking gangs, and that those who have been caught carrying it out may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Governments are right to do all they can to prevent Daesh foreign fighters returning ‘home’
Since the fall of Daesh’s so-called caliphate in Syria back in March, numerous countries have faced criticism for failing to repatriate and put on trial their nationals who travelled to the Middle East to join the jihadi group. In the wake of the extremist organisation’s final territorial defeat in the Syrian town of Baghouz some three months ago, multiple media organisations from all over the world have combed refugee camps such as al-Hol in the north-east of the country in search of jihadi fighters from their countries, with the resultant coverage prompting calls from politicians and commentators for governments to take back their radicalised nationals and make sure they face justice at “home”.
Earlier this week, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet became the latest such voice, calling on countries to assume responsibility for their citizens and take them back if they cannot be prosecuted where they are. But in many cases, these calls are quite rightly being rejected, with several countries refusing to welcome back individuals who have likely become hardened jihadis during their time with the group.
Former and current British nationals are among some of the most notorious foreign Daesh fighters and supporters presently languishing in limbo in migrant camps and prisons across Syria, where a number have become stranded after the UK government rescinded their citizenship. Shamima Begum, who was aged just 15 when she fled Britain to join Daesh back in 2015, was stripped of her UK nationality in February. El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, who were members of a Daesh cell that is said to have been responsible for the torture and execution of a number of prisoners, had their UK citizenships revoked in July of last year, prompting reports that the pair could be extradited to the US, where they could face the death penalty.
All three held dual nationality, allowing the British government to strip them of their citizenship without leaving them stateless, which would have been against international law. Back in April, El País spoke with three Spanish women who travelled to Syria to join Daesh at the al-Hol refugee camp. Yolanda Martínez, Luna Fernández and Lubna Miludi, who explained how they travelled with their husbands to Syria in 2014, are still waiting for a decision to be made about their potential repatriation to Spain.
Meanwhile, other countries have been more sympathetic to their citizens who decided to risk everything by travelling to Daesh’s so-called caliphate while the group was at the peak of its powers. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are said to have repatriated 756 of their nationals who travelled to join Daesh so far, while Belgium, Sweden and Australia have all worked to take back relatives of Deash fighters who have a legal claim to live in those countries. The actions these nations have taken have been used as examples of how governments should behave by commentators and “experts” who believe that countries have a duty to do all they can to bring Daesh fighters and supporters home, and that the extremists themselves have a right to return to the communities they abandoned to live under a jihadi death cult. When asked, members of the public in countries to which radicalised Islamist extremists wish to return quite sensibly say it would be better if they remained where they are.
For its part, the US government appears to have remained steadfast in refusing to allow one American-born “jihadi bride” to return home from Syria, arguing that the diplomatic status of her father at the time she was born means she does not qualify for US citizenship. Despite this, US President Donald Trump has been critical of EU nations that have refused to repatriate their Daesh fighters. While it is true that the US government did recently bring back several women and children who had been captured with fighters from the group, the inordinately sensible decision the White House made in the case of Hoda Muthana should act as a model for any government whose first priority is keeping its people safe from harm. If there is any way of doing so legally, individuals who travelled to join terrorist organisations abroad should be prevented from returning to the country they left.
Where possible, foreign nationals who have been captured after travelling to the region to join Daesh should be tried by local courts, as happened in May when three French men were sentenced to death in Iraq for offences relating to their membership of the group. As has been suggested by France, countries whose nationals are currently in Syrian refugee camps and jails could contribute to an international tribunal designed to bring these people to justice in the countries in which they committed their crimes. However they are dealt with though, leaders are right to seek to prevent battle-hardened foreign Daesh fighters from returning to their home countries where they might pose a significant risk to innocent members of the public.
Western nations must ban the ‘transplant tourism’ that is costing Chinese prisoners of conscience their lives
Regardless of how wealthy you are, the likelihood is in most western nations that you will need to join a lengthy waiting list if you are told you require an organ transplant. Unfortunately, owing to a major shortage of organ donors in most countries, many people on these lists die before they can secure the new body parts they require. In the US, 20 people pass away each day while in search of a suitable donor, while in the UK more than a quarter of those waiting for a transplant can except to lose their lives before a suitable match becomes available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this pushes many transplant patients who can afford to do so to seek out alternatives abroad, even though the trade in human organs is illegal in most countries across the globe. This has led to the emergence of a thriving black market in harvested organs, which are typically taken from the bodies of vulnerable healthy donors.
While in many cases organ brokers source body parts from impoverished, poorly educated individuals in developing countries who are typically paid a paltry sum in exchange for their sacrifice, some donors are compelled to give up their organs against their will, a large number of whom die as a consequence of doing so. Many of these donors fall victim to the organised criminal networks that control the illicit global trade in human organs, but in some cases, nation states have become involved in the harvesting of body parts, and are profiting from the misery on which the trade is based.
Earlier this week, the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse warned that China is continuing to kill prisoners from religious minorities such as Falun Gong for their organ, despite having said in 2014 that it would stop doing so. A tribunal convened by the coalition found that transplant waiting lists at Chinese hospitals are incredibly short, and that as many as 90,000 transplant operations a year are being carried out across the country, which is a far higher number than government figures suggest.
The tribunal’s findings have piled pressure on western governments to ban so-called transplant tourism to countries such as China, and have resulted in calls for doctors and medical organisations across the globe to stop working with the country in fields relating to organ transplantation. But whether its revelations will result in real change anytime soon remains to be seen. While several western governments across the globe are considering legalisation to ban transplant tourism, there appears to be little urgency when it comes to pushing these new laws through in some countries.
In Canada, a bill that would outlaw organ tourism is currently awaiting Senate approval, but might not receive it by the end of the current parliamentary session. Over in America, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution back in 2016 that condemned “state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting” and called for a US State Department investigation and new restrictions, neither of which have been forthcoming. In March of this year, a cross-party group of British MPs called for a ban on UK citizens travelling to China for organ transplant operations, urging the UK government to impose similar restrictions to those imposed by Italy, Spain, Israel and Taiwan. Since then, no action has been taken.
The UK’s Daily Telegraph this week revealed that children and adults at risk of being killed for their organs are fleeing to Britain in greater number, albeit from a very low starting point. It has been reported elsewhere in recent years that terrorist organisations such as Daesh stole organs from captured enemy fighters to treat its injured militants, and that people smuggling gangs have started taking organs from migrants as payment for being smuggled into their countries of choice. Sad as it is, there is often little western nations can do to prevent practices such as these, abhorrent as they may be.
Things are different with China though. In the face of substantial evidence that the Chinese state is complicit in the murder of prisoners for their organs, the global community has a responsibility to make it clear that this type of barbarism will not be tolerated. Putting the question of whether it is ethical to allow people to willingly sell their internal organs aside for a moment, it surely cannot be right for a nation state to sanction the murder of prisoners solely for the purpose of using their body parts in transplant operations, many of which can cost many tens of thousands of dollars. While desperate people with the financial means to do so will always go to great lengths to secure the organs they need to stay alive, western nations in particular must do all they can to stop China profiting from a brutal trade that sees the country’s prisoners of conscience treated as commodity.
Only a total ban on secondary sales can stamp out music and sports ticket fraud
Music fans and sports enthusiasts across the globe will often go to great lengths to secure tickets to events involving their favourite artists or teams, with a significant number routinely willing to pay multiple times the face value of tickets from a reseller should a concert or game they wished to attend have sold out. For many, the desire to get hold of tickets to these types of events can be so strong that their judgement can become clouded, resulting in some would-be revellers or spectators taking financial risks they might not in other circumstances. Organised criminals have become adept at exploiting this passion, raking in millions by selling sports and music lovers counterfeit tickets, often at hugely inflated prices. The illicit trade has continued to thrive for years despite frequent warnings from law enforcement agencies encouraging consumers to exercise caution when purchasing event tickets.
Appealing to music and sports fans ahead of the busy summer period, during which many concerts and sporting events are scheduled to take place, Britain’s national fraud reporting centre Action Fraud this week launched an awareness-raising campaign designed to encourage members of the public to only buy event tickets from authorised sellers. The organisation revealed that it had received 4,755 reports of ticket fraud in the 13 months to the end of April this year, noting that victims across the UK lost £1,654,888 ($2.08 million) to scammers over that period. This works out to an average of £365 per victim. Data recorded by Action fraud suggested that ticket fraud activity appears to peak over the summer months, with the agency observing a rise in the number of cases in August last year. Over in the US, a poll conducted by ticketing technology maker Aventus revealed last September that around 12% of Americans said they had bought a concert ticket online that later turned out to be fake. Some two-thirds of respondents said they worried they might get scammed when purchasing concert tickets on the internet.
The ticket resale market has become a huge business over recent decades, with companies such as StubHub and Viagogo raking in billions of dollars a year by providing a marketplace on which users can trade event tickets and passes. This has proven to be a massive boon to touts, who use bots to buy up large numbers of tickets to popular events before selling them on for a massive mark up. While these sites still suffer from problems related to the sale of counterfeit or unauthorised tickets, they have taken steps to address the issue, with some offering refunds to users who do get scammed. But while measures such as these might result in buyers getting their cash back if they are unfortunate enough to buy fake tickets, they cannot prevent fans being left disappointed and out of pocket if they travel to an event venue before realising the tickets they have are unusable. In May, football enthusiasts were warned that tickets sold on reseller sites for the Champions League final in Madrid, Spain, were unauthorised, and could leave many who had bought them unable to watch the game.
Away from online reseller outlets, fraudsters often set up their own fake ticket websites. Buyers who use these can expect to be sent counterfeit tickets, not be sent any tickets at all, or be told to meet a representative from the seller at the venue on the day of the event to collect their passes, only to find that nobody turns up. Earlier this month, a man from Illinois in the US told reporters how he had paid $433 for tickets to see former Beatle Paul McCartney, only to be turned away from the venue after his tickets were found to be bogus. In instances such as these, consumers often struggle to get their money back, unless they are able to take advantage of protection offered by their card provider.
It is perhaps most risky to buy event tickets from vendors on social media, auction sites or fan forums. But while many people realise this to be the case, sports and music fans can sometimes be so desperate to get their hands on the tickets they want that they are willing to take the risk. A poll conducted by UK bank Barclays in April of this year revealed that 40% of millennials in Britain would use social media to buy event tickets from private vendors, despite being aware that doing so is high risk. The survey found that 37% of millennial festival-goers said they had fallen victim to three or more ticketing scams, highlighting how easy it is for fraudsters to target this demographic. Scammers are also able to take advantage of social media by skimming information from images of event tickets that people post online. The organisers of the Glastonbury Festival in the UK this year warned buyers not to upload pictures of their tickets to social media platforms over fears that fraudsters could use barcodes and other information to create cloned passes.
No matter what measures are put in place by reseller websites or other platforms on which counterfeit event tickets are sold, the fact that sports and music fans are willing to go to such great lengths to see their heroes in the flesh makes it unlikely that the fraudsters will be going out of business anytime soon. The only real way to tackle the problem is to outlaw the secondary ticketing market altogether, but to do so would result in the destruction of a multi-billion dollar worldwide business, as well as the disappearance of a marketplace that works perfectly well for many people, even if it does allow morally-questionable touts to take advantage of people’s passion for the arts and sport. But without such a ban, people will continue to be conned by fake ticket vendors, regardless of how many campaigns are launched to raise awareness of the issue.
- Governments are right to do all they can to prevent Daesh foreign fighters returning ‘home’
- Singaporean woman facing 20 years in jail for printing homemade bogus banknotes
- Drug traffickers using private airstrips and ports in the Philippines to import narcotics, authorities warn
- Global food fraud crackdown results in seizure of goods worth $117 million and arrest of 672 suspects
- US State Department adds Saudi Arabia and Cuba to human trafficking blacklist
9 February 2018
9 February 2018
8 February 2018
28 November 2017
28 November 2017
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