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#Encrochat News: How criminals smuggle drugs at European ports by using encrypted phones

In the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, the authorities have 160 tons in the past year cocaine confiscated – a record amount. They have hardly curbed the consumption of the drug, as evidenced by traces in the sewage of large cities.

There were also new records in 2022. But at least they now have a better understanding of how criminal networks infiltrate ports — which is also a result of investigations into communications services like Encrochat and SkyECC, through which drug cartels have done their business. On Wednesday, the EU police authority Europol and those responsible for security at the three largest European ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg presented their findings in a joint study.

For criminal groups in Europe the biggest challenge is getting cocaine out of ports undetected. They benefit from the fact that only a fraction of the containers are checked – a total of just two percent of the 98 million containers that are handled there every year. Customs select them based on risk profiles: certain ports of origin, product groups and suppliers are more susceptible to smuggling than others.

So it is that at least every tenth container from South America, where the cocaine mostly comes from, is checked.

Customs checks import declarations, uses sniffer dogs, scans containers and opens them if a suspicion is confirmed.

Drug cartels try to reduce their risk by finding new ways to transport their goods. But even if customs catches the eye of a delivery, that does not mean that the officials will get hold of it. In the ports themselves, the containers are unloaded at a terminal that depends on the origin and final destination (from the EU or a third country) and onward transport (by ship, train or truck).

“Trojan horses” on the port area

There the containers are stacked up – and the work of the so-called extraction teams, which are supposed to get the cocaine from the port area, begins. Some enter on foot, others arrive on the port site with so-called “Trojan horses”, as the study explains: in containers that are intended for export and are taken to the appropriate terminals.

In any case, the teams need the help of dockers. Access to the IT systems is crucial. Each container has a unique registration number that is issued with the shipment – similar to a tracking code for packages. With this number, a PIN or QR code, a container can be located at any time and, after clearance by customs, picked up.

The role of the crane operator

Crane operators also play an important role: they decide whether a container is placed at the bottom, where it can be easily opened, or at the top, on top of five other containers. There are also ordinary workers who bring teams onto the site and give them a hand, and truck drivers who transport containers. In addition, customs officials and port police officers who look away at the crucial moment.

“Anyone who is involved in a link in the logistics chain is a support for the criminal networks and therefore vulnerable to corruption,” the study says. Amounts of several hundred thousand euros are often paid – a multiple of what the bribed regularly earns. The coordinator of an extraction is paid 7 to 15 percent of the value of the goods. A lot of money, because a ton of cocaine fetches 40 to 100 million euros when sold to end customers in Europe.

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