[WATCH] Scanners and sniffers on the frontline against illegal substances

An interview with a dog handler inside Malta’s busy Customs department • 'The recent string of drug busts has really personified our role in safekeeping not only Maltese but European society'

Sparky took centre-stage after making headlines for uncovering a 10kg haul of cannabis that had been stashed inside the hidden compartments of a vehicle that entered Malta via the catamaran from Sicily
Sparky took centre-stage after making headlines for uncovering a 10kg haul of cannabis that had been stashed inside the hidden compartments of a vehicle that entered Malta via the catamaran from Sicily
Scanners and sniffers On the frontline against illegal substances

At 22 years of age, Andrew’s* job inside Malta’s busy Customs department, is that of a dog handler – he is not police, but his job is to take care of one of several dogs inside Customs’ canine unit that are trained to sniff out hidden narcotics entering Malta through its Freeport.

Only in November, his dog Sparky took centre-stage after making headlines for uncovering a 10kg haul of cannabis that had been stashed inside the hidden compartments of a vehicle that entered Malta via the catamaran from Sicily.

“This dog’s determination has really helped us nab some large drug finds,” Andrew – who does not want his real name published for professional reasons – says, his hand patting Sparky, a brown-haired springer dog, pleased with his accomplishments.

It has truly been an eventful year for Maltese customs: 10 tonnes of cannabis resin worth €28.5 million en route from Syria to Libya, 40kg of cocaine worth €4.5 million travelling from Ecuador to Cyprus, and 32,000 contraband cigarettes destined to Malta from Moscow.

“The recent string of drug busts has really personified our role in safekeeping not only Maltese but European society,” George Agius, one of the Customs department’s inspectors says, somewhat loftily. “We will keep on working hard to uphold our commitment.”

Indeed, Agius speaks from the centre of one of the Mediterranean’s busiest transhipment ports. And the Maltese Customs section is responsible to carry out vetting and assessment of countless containers and goods passing through here. It truly is one of Europe’s first lines for the entry of illicit substances.

“Customs services are on a country’s frontline in its fight against the importation of narcotics and illicit products into the country, while also ensuring that all imported goods have their duties and fiscal payments settled. We act as a watchdog on both fronts, on fiscal matters and illicit substances and goods.”

More to the point, Malta’s Customs is one of three major sources of tax revenue, generating around €427 million a year alone. Only recently, it had its warehouse infrastructure and control room equipped with new technologies to assist it in the fight against criminal groups and contraband cargo.

Operating within Malta’s major entry points in the Grand Harbour, the Msida and Gozo Yacht Marinas, the post office and the airport, Customs reviews thousands of consignments each day through its specialised teams.

One of the teams tasked in performing searches on vehicles and containers brought into the country is the sniffer dog unit, with people like Andrew busy guiding their individually-assigned dogs through the containers.

“The team, consisting of dog handlers and their canines, are called onsite where they are requested. In one day, the team can visit multiple locations,” Agius says.

Andrew says dogs like Sparky are trained from a very young age.

“It starts by training them to find a particular kind of dog toy. Once the dog starts to successfully retrieve the toy, the smell of narcotics, tobacco and cash are slowly integrated into the training process.

“The whole process from the dog’s perspective is a game. When training them to conduct searches we use a reward system, and that motivates them to sniff out the illicit objects,” Andrew says.

When conducting a sniffing search, the dogs are taught to ‘sit’ when they detect any illegal smells. This technique not only informs the handler in a clear manner, but also helps in not damaging any vehicles if a search is conducted on one.

George Agius says that all dogs can smell all major narcotics like cocaine, heroin, and cannabis, as well as seven types of tobacco and even money bills. “The dog section is an invaluable part of our team and we treat them with the utmost care,” Agius says.

With their €1.5 million Nuctech container scanner, the Freeport customs officials have now managed to double the number of containers they previously scanned, by obtaining X-ray images of the container’s inside. “A truck carrying the container gets driven inside a specially designated zone and parks there. Once the truck is in the allocated area, the scanner carries out an X-ray of the container and sends imaging to an internal office. The driver’s cabin is protected from the harmful rays.”

The recently installed scanner is expected to raise seizures by 10% over the previous years.

“Once a container has been flagged the dog section steps in, and if the cargo is deemed illicit police officials are called on site, where the container is held at the Customs warehouse with 24-hour police protection, until further orders are issued by a magistrate assigned to the case,” Agius says.

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