EXCLUSIVE: Bolstering security at maritime borders to fight illicit trade

Using satellite images and sharing intelligence to fight cross-border crimes.

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, talks to Berndt Koerner, deputy executive director of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, on using satellite images and sharing intelligence to fight cross-border crimes.

There are numerous cross-border maritime criminal activities like drug trafficking, illicit goods hidden in vessels, migrant smuggling, illegal fishing, environmental crimes, and insurance fraud, among others.

Border surveillance of EU external borders is vital for the safety and protection of European citizens. This is why Frontex supports EU Member States in the detection of irregular migration and fighting cross-border crimes.

Analysis from Frontex shows that there is strong evidence that many criminal syndicates engage in poly-criminal activities.  They may also collaborate with other serious organized crime groups.  In some cases, the same routes and modus operandi are used for migrant smuggling and illegal goods trafficking.

According to Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, drug trafficking is big business, bringing in a fifth of all profits from organized crimes.  If left unmitigated, it can ravish communities, endanger businesses, strain government institutions, and drag down the wider economy.

In 2018, 158 tons of illegal drugs were seized in Frontex coordinated operations.  Given the complex character of cross-border crime threats, comprehensive operational responses are required.

Berndt says: “In all cases of smuggling, including drug smuggling, a thorough and updated situation picture is of key importance.  For example, we have the EU satellite program Copernicus and we have various platforms and channels to work very closely and share intelligence with all EU Member States.

“When it comes to our working relationship with the maritime industry, cooperation is one of the most important pillars.  We are very open to working with the industry and remain committed to two-way communication.

“This way, together we can stay ahead of all security issues, get to know any new modus operandi of criminal groups and prevent crimes from happening.”

Berndt also emphasized that increased situational awareness and timely and accurate data allow an up-to-date, reliable situational picture to be compiled at strategic, operational and tactical levels.

This picture contributes to improved proactive capability in fighting cross-border crimes.  Informed decisions based on increased situational awareness will reduce reaction times and allow for more efficient use of the available assets.

Copernicus in action

Copernicus is the EU’s Earth Observation Program, offering information services based on satellite and in situ (non-space) data.  These data from satellites and from ground-based, airborne and seaborne measurement systems are being used to provide information to help fight illicit trade, among others.

This helps the agency and national authorities make sure that no one enters the EU undetected, rescue lives at sea, fight against cross-border crime and improve the internal security of the European Union.

Frontex is one of the institutions entrusted by the European Commission with the implementation of Copernicus.  It is responsible for supporting the EU’s external border management and law enforcement authorities in Member States.

Frontex ensures that these Earth Observation data are also fused with complementary data sources to provide a range of services to its stakeholders, including coastal monitoring and surveillance of maritime borders (Fusion Services).

For example, Berndt explains that the vessel tracking and detection service uses satellite radar scans of maritime areas to detect objects on the sea.  It will then correlate the detected data with the ship’s reporting data to track unidentified objects, even small boats.  This is effective in tracking vessels smuggling drugs and other illicit goods.

Success stories

In June 2019, suspicious vessels, people and drug smugglers were arrested as part of Frontex-coordinated operation.  This international operation highlighted the importance of a close working network and real-time information exchange between all participants.

Nine suspicious vessels were seized and eight people smugglers were arrested as part of Joint Action Day (JAD) Adria, coordinated by Frontex and joined by Greece, Croatia, Italy, France and Europol.  Law enforcement authorities also seized 27.4 kg of cannabis and arrested one drug smuggler.

In March 2018, Greek authorities intercepted Daslis, a vessel carrying illicit goods, in the Mediterranean Sea. Using Fusion Services, it was tracked and identified with the support of satellite optical imagery.  The vessel was carrying four containers of cigarettes without adequate accompanying documents worth of €4.7 million.

In June 2017, two successful interceptions took place in Greece and in Spain.  In the first case, a vessel named Golendri was tracked by Greek authorities with the support of Fusion Services. The interception occurred in the south of Crete and led to six arrests and the seizure of smuggled cigarettes on board worth €6 million.

The second interception happened in July 2017 when a vessel named Falkvag was tracked and intercepted by Spanish authorities.  As a result, six containers of contraband cigarettes worth €12 million were seized.

In December 2015, Italian authorities used Fusion Services to identify and then intercepted a vessel named Munzur that was smuggling narcotics.  The data helped the authorities to track the ship, resulting in the seizure of 13 tons of drugs that were found onboard.

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