One of the biggest issues South American drug cartels must constantly grapple with is the difficulty of getting their product safely into the countries in which they will stand the best chance of making the most money. With last year’s Global Drug Survey revealing that a gram of cocaine worth €5.40 ($6.10) in Colombia can fetch up to €211.70 in New Zealand, it is not difficult to see why trafficking networks put so much time and effort into coming up with new and ingenious ways of slipping their illicit cargo past customs officials who guard the borders of their most profitable marketplaces. Over recent weeks and months, there have been reports of South American gangs hiding narcotics in fake stones and impregnating drugs into plastic pellets before shipping them into Europe.
Traffickers from the region have even been known to pay corrupt vets to implant packages of heroin into puppies’ stomachs before flying the young dogs to the US and slicing them open in order to retrieve the illegal substance. But alongside the need for constant innovation, South American drug cartels have a small number of tried and tested smuggling methods they have stuck with through thick and thin over recent years. Perhaps one of the most popular of these is smuggling drugs concealed inside shipments of perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables, which recent seizures suggest remains a favourite among South American drug gangs.
Just days ago, China’s state-backed Xinhua news agency reported that Bulgarian customs officers had discovered almost 76kgs of cocaine said to be worth nearly $3 million concealed inside a shipment of fruit in the port city of Burgas. Local prosecutors said the haul was found by investigators inside four boxes of fruit at a warehouse in the city that were said to have arrived as part of a larger shipment at the end of July. In a statement, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior said the drugs had been wrapped in lead foil in order to make them harder for border officers to detect.
In February, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said its officers had discovered more than half a tonne of cocaine estimated to be worth more than $19 million hidden inside a shipment of fresh pineapples that had arrived in Georgia by boat from Colombia. CBP agents located 450 packages containing white powder among the pineapples, which tests later confirmed was cocaine. Last September, the National Crime Agency, which is routinely referred to as the UK’s FBI, announced that it had impounded cocaine and heroin estimated to be worth £27 million ($32.45 million) that was discovered stashed away in a truckload of vegetables at a port in north Lincolnshire.
Prior to this, investigators in Spain last April discovered a staggering nine tonnes of cocaine estimated to be worth more than €285 million among hundreds of boxes of bananas on a shipping container that arrived from Colombia at Algeciras port in the southeast of the country. It is thought that this shipment was organised by a notorious Colombian trafficking cartel known as the Gulf Clan.
One of the main reasons drug traffickers favour concealing their illicit cargo inside shipments of perishable goods is because items such as fruit and vegetables are often fast-tracked through customs checks on account of their short shelf life. On top of this, South America is a major producer of several exotic fruits that are exported in large quantities to the markets the cartels want to reach, offering smugglers plenty of opportunity to hijack legitimate shipments to major retailers. Back in April of this year, employees of German discount supermarket Aldi discovered around half a tonne of cocaine that had been hidden a large consignment of bananas brought into the country from Latin America.
In the majority of cases, legitimate fruit exporters and their customers will have no knowledge of the fact that their shipments are being used to smuggle huge quantities of drugs halfway across the world. South American cartels routinely employ corrupt customs staff at the point of departure to conceal their illicit cargo inside legitimate consignments of perishable goods, and others at the point of arrival to extract them. Described as “rip-off modality” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this smuggling method requires corrupt staff at the point of departure to position drug consignments in an easily accessible position inside a shipping container before resealing it, ensuring that their counterparts at the other end are able to gain easy access to the illicit cargo.
It is likely that something would have gone wrong somewhere along the line when drugs are discovered in shipments of fruit by supermarket workers, although it is plausible that corrupt workers could be employed by trafficking cartels at any point along the supply chain. Either way, the fact that it is still so routine for law enforcement agencies to intercept shipments of drugs concealed inside consignments of fruit suggests that this smuggling method remains a long way from falling out of favour with the trafficking cartels.
How the US opioid crisis could become a global phenomenon
For the best part of a decade, the world has looked on with horror as the US opioid crisis has spiralled out of control. Up until 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths had risen in America every year since 1999, driven in the most part by abuse of both prescription and illicit synthetic opioid-style drugs. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that drug overdoses were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of just over 72,280 people across America in 2017, which was up approximately 10% on the previous year.
The overwhelming majority of those deaths, nearly 49,000, were reported to have been linked to the use of opioids, highlighting the gravity of the threat these drugs pose to US public health. For its part, the Trump administration has sought to treat the problem as a law and order issue, and use it as a political weapon with which to target China, which is said to be a major supplier of illicit versions of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl sold on the streets of the US.
But while it is true that the opioid epidemic that has enveloped the US is a huge driver of crime across the country, and that many of the illegal drugs that have recently been fuelling the crisis originate from China, these are symptoms rather than causes of the problem. Many experts agree that the irresponsible over-prescribing of legitimate opioid medication, which peaked in the early part of this decade, is one pf the primary causes of the US opioid epidemic.
A propensity for US medics to hand out these types of drugs as though they were sweets resulted in many of their patients becoming addicted to the substances they were prescribed, a problem that was hugely exacerbated after the US government took steps in 2014 to crack down on the culture of over-prescribing, leaving those who had become hooked on legitimate medication with little alternative but to turn to illicit sources. Years later, major pharmaceutical firms including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma are now facing huge negligence lawsuits relating to the manner in which the drugs they sold contributed to the problem.
Yet despite the well-publicised and very grave consequences of the over-prescribing of these types of drugs in the US, evidence suggests the same mistakes are being repeated in other countries. Public Health England (PHE) has published a report that revealed around a quarter of all adults in England are taking prescription medication that they might find difficult to quit, including opioids, benzodiazepines and antidepressants.
The report found that in March of last year, half of those receiving a prescription for these types of medicines had been doing so continuously for at least 12 months, while up to 32% had being taking them for at least the past three years. The PHE study also revealed that opioids were more likely to be prescribed to patients living in the most deprived parts of the country than the least deprived.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Australia could be on track to witness a larger spike in opioid-related overdose deaths than the US as companies look to foreign markets outside of America to sell this type of medication. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, opioid overdose deaths across the country rose from 439 in 2006 to 1,119 in 2016.
Outside of the UK, alarm bells are also ringing across the rest of Europe, with a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warning in June that 22% of addicts entering drug treatment programmes in EU member states for an opioid-related problems now cite a licit or illicit synthetic opioid as their main issue as opposed to heroin. The EMCDDA said this suggested that medicines containing opioids are becoming a growing problem for those seeking treatment for drug addiction in the 28-nation bloc.
While some doctors complain that they often have little alternative but to prescribe these types of drugs to patients, it seems astonishing that other wealthy western nations could be sleepwalking into the type of opioid crisis that has ravaged the US over the past 10 years. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that the availability and use of illicit synthetic opioids such as fentanyl is rising across Europe and Australia, meaning that if these countries’ governments leave it too late to take the necessary measures to tackle the over-prescribing of such medicines, an army of addicts will be left with a ready alternative once their legitimate supply had been reduced or completely cut off.
It is of course possible that the US opioid epidemic was caused by a set of problems that were unique to America, but the patterns being seen in other western nations are beginning to look depressingly familiar.
Online games and apps aimed specifically at children and young people remain fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators
Whether or not children spend too much time staring at smartphones, games console screens, laptops and tablets is one of biggest concerns modern parents face. Part and parcel of this for many is an almost constant worry about the type of material their children might access online. In an attempt to make sure their sons and daughters do not stumble across threats while using the internet, parents are now able to avail themselves of a number of tools that promise to reduce the chances of their children being exposed to online harms, including ISP content filters and tracking software that monitors which sites young people visit on their devices.
In many cases, these types of solutions can lull parents into a false sense of security, creating the illusion that children will be safe while online so long as they are unable to access websites that might carry questionable content. Sadly, predators and paedophiles who target children on the internet have been doing so using connected apps and games aimed exclusively at children and young people for years, many of which typically appear to be quite harmless to parents. Despite this, the tech industry appears to remain at best relaxed about the threat online child abusers pose to their younger users, seemingly content to be doing the bare minimum to address the issue.
Last week, UK child protection charity the NSPCC urged Facebook not to encrypt Messenger accounts belonging to children unless the company could prove that doing so would not expose young people to online predators. The charity argued that it seemed peculiar that the firm would choose to actively introduce new technology that would make it harder for its own staff members and law enforcement agencies to identify instances in which young people might be exposed to online grooming.
Facebook has faced criticism in the past for failing to provide access to messages sent by perpetrators of major terrorist attacks, and could in all likelihood press on with its plans to encrypt Messenger, even though doing so could potentially put children and young people at risk. If the company makes such a decision, it will provide further ammunition to those who argue that big technology firms care little for the fate of children and young people who are groomed on their platforms. It is an argument that is hard not to have some sympathy with, given the fact that these multi-billion-dollar companies appear to be making little progress in the fight against online child sexual exploitation. If anything, the problem appears to be worsening, with regular media reports suggesting that child abusers are able to take advantage of online tools, many of which are aimed exclusively at children, with near impunity.
Back in February, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped lip-sync video app TikTok with a $5.7 million fine after discovering that the company had illegally collected personal information from children, and had made children’s profiles public by default, resulting in some being contained by adults. This came after the Indian government in April ordered Apple and Google to remove the app, which is owned by Chinese technology giant ByteDance, from their app stores over fears it was being used to spread pornographic material. In the UK, an investigation conducted by Sun Online in February revealed that paedophiles were suing TikTok to send sexually explicit messages to children as young as eight. Just months later in May, the Sunday Times reported that police in Britain were investigating three cases of child exploitation a day linked to Snapchat, with investigators warning that paedophiles had been using the app to groom children into sending indecent images of themselves.
Elsewhere, police in both Canada and the UK last year cautioned that Epic Games’ wildly popular third-person multiplayer shooter Fortnite was being used by paedophiles and sextortion scammers to groom children into committing sex acts and sending explicit images of themselves via social media. Highlighting the manner in which predators are able to use these platforms to target victims, the BBC reported in July that a man from Wales had been jailed for 10 years after being convicted of using gaming accounts and nine Facebook profiles to groom boys as young as seven.
But despite the regularity with which these types of stories appear, little seems to change. The big tech firms, with their almost bottomless pockets, seem wholly unable to get to grips with the issue. In the majority of cases, they act only when forced to do so, investing in child protection initiatives solely when ordered to by governments, or when the issue poses a risk of damaging their bottom lines. To many, these companies’ failure to act is nothing short of a betrayal of the children and young people who are targeted by predators online. But while it is certainly the case that all technology firms could do more to address internet child abuse in all its forms, it is particularly egregious that businesses that own online apps and services aimed specifically at children and young people appear so indifferent to the wellbeing and safety of their users.
Counterfeit e-cigarette products could trigger an epidemic of deadly vaping-related lung conditions
While the jury is still out as to whether using electronic cigarettes is safe over the longer term, the vast majority of experts have until recently almost unanimously agreed that vaping is far less harmful than smoking traditional tobacco products. While this largely continues to be the case, a growing amount of anecdotal evidence suggests vaping might not be quite as innocuous as was once thought. Earlier this month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the first death linked to e-cigarette use had been recorded in America, and also said it was investigating nearly 200 cases of severe lung illness in patients who were users of vaping products.
This week, NBC reported that the number e-cigarette-related lung illness cases recorded across the US is nearer to 300, and revealed that health officials in Milwaukee had advised members of the public to stop using all vaping products immediately. None of the cases of vaping-related lung conditions recorded in the US have so far been linked to any one device or liquid product, but e-cigarette sceptics will likely not be surprised at the suggestion that inhaling what is essentially a cocktail of chemicals might be harmful to people’s health.
It remains to be seen as to whether or not vaping is in and of itself dangerous, and if so, how severe that danger might be, but the cases the CDC is now investigating have come to light at a time of increasing reports of counterfeit vaping products being sold in retail outlets and online. In many countries, the e-cigarette market is poorly regulated, raising concerns about untested products containing unknown ingredients being sold to unsuspecting members of the public. But even in countries where rules around selling vaping products are strict, a growing market for counterfeit and illegally produced e-cigarette products could pose a very serious and growing risk to public health. In the US, CNBC reported this week that mostly Chinese-made fake pods for Juul e-cigarette products are flooding America, prompting former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to speculate that bogus vaping products could be behind the recent surge in lung conditions related to e-cigarette use.
Like counterfeit cigarettes, which are typically more carcinogenic than the genuine product and often contain harmful ingredients such as rat position, arsenic and pesticides, fake vaping devices and liquids are produced in unregulated and potentially unhygienic environments. Not only does this mean it is almost impossible to know what ingredients are truly in counterfeit e-cigarette products, but also that all manner of bacteria could have contaminated them during the production process, or while they are in storage or being distributed.
According to a report from the Washington Post, authorities in the US are currently working under the assumption that the recent spate of vaping-related lung illnesses across the country were caused by “adulterants” in products that purportedly contained THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. Investigators are said to be focussing particularly on products that are manufactured illegally or are sold in states where marijuana is still outlawed. In a recent feature article, Rolling Stone outlined several cases in which young people had developed serious lung conditions having been regular users of these types of products. The magazine noted that a liquid one of these patients had been using contained not only THC, but also Vitamin E, which is known to cause lipoid pneumonitis if inhaled.
While some commentators have appealed for calm after reporting around the recent rise in e-cigarette-related lung illnesses, arguing that dissuading people from using vaping products could hinder efforts to reduce smoking rates, the problem looks likely only to worsen if it truly is linked to the sale of counterfeit devices and liquids. The global e-cigarette market was worth nearly $28 billion last year, and is expected to grow to $75 billion by 2023, according to Euromonitor, making what is already an attractive prospect for organised criminals almost irresistible.
Highlighting the difficulty e-cigarette users can have when it comes to knowing what is really in the liquids they use with their devices, health officials in the UK warned in July that at least nine young people had required hospital treatment after using purported THC vape liquid that in reality contained new psychoactive cannabinoid Spice. This came after the US FDA warned a Chinese e-cigarette manufacturer not to sell vaping juice laced with erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra and Cialis. As a growing number of people continue to inhale substances such as these, some of whose effects on the human respiratory system are unknown, and criminals who care little for public health increasingly look to target the hugely profitable vaping market, it looks likely that cases of e-cigarette-related lung illnesses will quickly become a problem with which medical professionals find themselves far too familiar.
- EU Commissioner for Human Rights calls on member states to protect migrants from people smugglers
- UK paedophile grooming gang member handed additional jail time for trolling victims online
- Police in Ohio arrest 104 people in major crackdown on sex trafficking
- Coalition of law enforcement agencies in the Philippines nab wildlife trader who evaded capture for years
- Farmer jailed for smuggling illicit garlic shipments into Australia
9 February 2018
9 February 2018
8 February 2018
28 November 2017
28 November 2017
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