x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

On the drug smugglers' case

Customs agents at Dubai International Airport use state-of-the-art technology and old-fashioned detective work to keep a constant lookout for criminals.

Customs inspector Ibrahim Obeid Saeed checks the suitcases of passengers at Dubai International Airport.
Customs inspector Ibrahim Obeid Saeed checks the suitcases of passengers at Dubai International Airport.

DUBAI // It is a ceaseless game of cat and mouse between customs agents and the drug smugglers who would evade them. As the criminal fraternity devises ever more elaborate ways of moving their contraband through the region, so authorities improve and refine their methods of detection.

As a global crossroads, with proximity to the opium-poppy fields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dubai International Airport is in the front line of the international war on drugs. At the airport, the authorities' methods are both elaborate and mundane − from machines that measure the density of items, to foot patrols in terminal buildings that look for telltale suspicious behaviour. Ali al Magahwi, the director of airport operations at Dubai Customs, said customs agents were in a constant battle to stay one step ahead of the smugglers. "There is a lot of people who are bringing drugs here, counterfeit goods, gold, diamonds - all kinds of things," he said. "They are very creative in trying to bring illegal things here, but we have the situation under control. "We use the latest technology, state-of-the-art body-scanning machines, and our staff has training in understanding body language to notice suspicious behaviour. Their training is regularly updated. "We are catching them, but we must always remain vigilant." The colossal profits involved in the drugs trade prove an irresistible lure to some. Smugglers often go to extraordinary lengths to transport their illicit cargos. Last year, customs officers seized 16kg of heroin which had been packed inside thousands of individual almond nutshells. Months earlier, another smuggler was caught after he prised open dozens of walnuts, filled them with drugs, and glued the shells back together. With almost two million tonnes of cargo and more than 36 million international passengers moving through the sprawling complex of terminals last year alone, detecting contraband or offenders is a needle-in-a-haystack operation. An army of 650 customs officers patrol and monitor the airport's three terminals, examining luggage and behaviour in a bid to identify the guilty from the innocent. It takes a keen eye to keep track of the elaborate methods employed by criminals. In December, an Iranian man appeared in court charged with drug smuggling after his suitcase was found to be filled with 85 items of clothing, which had been soaked in liquid opium. Forensics recovered 1.2kg of opium from the clothing. Figures released by Dubai airport show that 1,352 people were arrested in 2009 trying to smuggle illegal goods into the country. Of those, 377 involved drug seizures. In 2008, 1,264 people were stopped while carrying contraband, of which 577 were carrying drugs. Officials at the airport said it was difficult to interpret from the data if smugglers were increasingly avoiding moving drugs through Dubai in response to customs officials' efforts, or whether drug gangs were more successfully evading detection. Hundreds of CCTV cameras are mounted around the airport's lounges, shopping areas and gates. They generate images that agents study for suspicious activity. Customs staff also have groups of undercover officers, known as "rover teams", which mingle with travellers and point out suspicious individuals whose behaviour can be monitored from a central observation point. Four shifts of eight people work in Terminal 3, the busiest of the terminals, with smaller teams in the two other terminals. "When somebody is carrying things illegally, they behave differently," Mr al Magahwi said. "Our officers are trained to recognise these changes. "When they see somebody act suspiciously, they will signal to other officials to pay special attention to them." Drug smuggling has historically been a serious issue in the UAE. A report in 2008 by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board said the UAE had become a "major exporting and trans-shipping area" for drugs such as heroin and amphetamines. The report praised the Government's increased efforts to combat the deadly trade, but said more needed to be done to collate data on the scale of drug abuse in the nation, combined with tougher sanctions against drug smugglers. Reports last year said that heroin which had passed through the growing network of free zones, ports and airports had travelled across the globe, with some recovered as far away as Hong Kong and Australia. The most common means of smuggling heroin is for people to swallow dozens of packets of the drug wrapped in plastic. The practice is fraught with danger; should any of the packages split, the carrier could die from a massive overdose. A European man arrested this month was allegedly carrying 85 wraps of heroin. He had swallowed the packets but, midway through his flight, 19 of them were said to have passed through his system. Rather than abandon them, he hid them in his hand luggage. Last month, a 48-year-old man was stopped at Terminal 2 having allegedly swallowed 124 packets of the drug crystal methamphetamine, weighing a total of 1.4kg. He was spotted acting suspiciously shortly before he boarded a flight to Indonesia. The drugs were discovered after he was examined with a body-scan machine. Prof Stefan Wolff, the director of the Centre for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution at the University of Nottingham in Britain, said it was vital for the UAE to robustly combat drug smuggling. "There is definitely a problem [in the UAE] from smuggling and, because Dubai airport is a major transit hub, that could certainly cause problems for other countries," he said. "Because the airport now has links all around the world, drugs coming into Dubai can end up anywhere. "Also, some of the drugs are likely to stay in the country, meaning that the market for drugs will go up. That can lead to problems like associated crime. "From the UAE's perspective, it is important to send a clear message that the authorities are tough on crime." chamilton@thenational.ae