EXCLUSIVE: Keeping our ports drug-free

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, talks to Patrick Verhoeven, MD of the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), on how ports can fight drug trafficking and corruption.

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, talks to Patrick Verhoeven, MD of the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), on how ports can fight drug trafficking and corruption. IAPH represents 170 ports and 140 port-related businesses in 90 countries worldwide.

Recently in June, U.S. authorities seized more than 33,000 pounds of cocaine from a MSC ship at Philadelphia Port’s Packer Marine Terminal. The drug is worth more than US$1 billion on the street, and it is one of the largest seizures in American history.

This is the second bust of a MSC vessel at the Port of Philadelphia. In March, another MSC vessel was raided and a stash of cocaine worth $38m was found onboard.

Emerging drug hub in Asia

The latest World Drug Report, released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, describes Asia as an emerging hub for cocaine trafficking and consumption. Cocaine busts have been seen across Asia and in some unexpected countries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

The United Nations found that although dozens of drug mules are used every year to move the product, the largest consignments of cocaine are not getting to Asia in airplanes, but in ships.

Global container port volumes were up by 6 per cent last year, according to UN data. As the amount of cargo moving across the Pacific and around the world continues to increase, the opportunity to smuggle through ports also grows, while inspection rates remain relatively low.

Therefore, for drug cartels, the chances of not getting caught at seaports are higher as compared to going through the airport with passenger screening, which is higher risk.

What can ports do to fight drug trafficking?

“Unfortunately, drug trafficking is a problem facing the global maritime industry,” says Patrick.  “It will involve some forms of corruption, and usually starts with bribery.”

“There are many players in the port community.  Therefore, firstly, we have to create awareness on the seriousness of the drug problem.  We have to let everyone knows about the negative consequences.

“Then, we have to get all stakeholders onboard to fight the problem together.

“Apart from increasing awareness, another important factor is enhancing relationships among the ports, so as to facilitate exchange of info at inter-port level.

“Of course, at the end of the day, fighting drug trafficking is a role for law enforcement. But they can rely on intelligence provided by ports and by extension, the shipping community.

And in this regard, having an information network and sharing critical and timely intelligence with law enforcement is an important role that ports can undertake.

For example, Patrick cites the case of Antwerp Port Authority. The Port Information Network (PIN), launched by Antwerp Port Authority for greater security in 2014, is the largest network of this type and the first in Belgian seaports. There are now more than 450 port companies in the network, spread over a huge area of 130 km².

PIN is a collaborative arrangement between companies in the Antwerp port area and the local authorities.  It is coordinated by the port authority. The companies are committed to exchange information on suspicious or criminal situations with each other, through the police.

PIN offers more efficient reporting of information that in turn enables the police to intervene faster whenever suspicious behavior is observed.  There is thus greater security and confidence among port users.

How can port operators ensure people on the ground do not succumb to corruption?

“It starts with screening of potential employees during the recruitment process and working closely with unions,” says Patrick.

It is also important to have a code of conduct for all staff, an effective system for handling grievances and protection for whistleblowers.

Patrick says that to counter corruption, there is a need for employees to report anything suspicious that they encounter, whether it is during their working time or outside of work.

Reporting can be done through an anonymous whistleblowing platform as this will encourage more active participation and there is no fear of reprisal.  It can also serve as an effective intelligence-gathering channel and deterrence against crimes.

Drawing on the experience of the Antwerp port community with 150,000 employees, Patrick shares that it has a comprehensive checklist of things for employees to look out for so as to finetune the quality and accuracy of the feedback.

  • If you see an opened container in a wrong or strange place
  • If an unauthorized person asks you to locate a container
  • If an unauthorized person asks you questions about a certain container (unloading or loading location, container number)
  • If someone asks you to leave a container unattended
  • If a colleague appears at work while he is not scheduled
  • If a colleague asks you a question or asks for a favor that you think is not normal
  • If you notice activities and/or people where they do not normally occur
  • If a stranger asks you for details about your work via social media
  • If a stranger asks you if you want to ‘earn money fast’ or ‘want to earn something extra’
  • If a colleague suddenly has a very high standard of living for no apparent reason

Everyone, whether in management or operation, has a responsibility to ensure their workplace is safe and secure, free of drug trafficking and corruption.

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