Powerful scanner gives Malta the edge on South American cocaine passing through port

Maltese customs' secret weapon is a €1.5 million Nutech scanner which has busted €83 million in South American cocaine passing through Malta Freeport

The Nutech scanner analysing the internal contents of a container
The Nutech scanner analysing the internal contents of a container

Malta’s Customs Department has stunned the public with high-profile busts on container transhipments that so far, have resulted in seizures of over 750kgs of cocaine – an estimated value of €83.9 million on the street.

The ‘secret’, customs inspector George Agius says, is a €1.5 million Nutech scanner the department installed in 2017. Its X-ray imaging of the internal contents of a container gives the department an edge on the fight against the drug trade.

In 2018, the Malta Freeport Terminals handled a record 3.31 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) containers, and this year it will be ramping up to increase its capacity to handle four million TEUs. Over 2,200 vessels call at the Freeport every year.

Tech gives Customs the edge on South American cocaine busts

These records have also meant a busy time for the Customs Department, which is breaking its own records. During April, in three containers bound for Albania and Montenegro, Customs personnel discovered 120 packets worth of cocaine, weighing 144kg, inside the refrigeration compressor unit of the containers. All three containers arrived in Malta from South American destinations.

Agius says the Nutech scanner has enabled Customs to double the number of containers scanned, with a predicted 10% increase in busts. “Our department invested heavily in equipment, infrastructure, training, human logistics and intelligence. We also revisited our modus operandi and this is giving results,” he said.

Sniffer dogs, trained to smell major narcotics like cocaine, heroin, even cannabis and seven types of tobacco and also money bills, help officials in tracking down illegal merchandise.

Scanners and sniffers On the frontline against illegal substances

“Our risk profiling is based on several criteria. We look at the selected cargo manifest and scrutinise the declarations in several aspects with a ‘Customs’ eye. We also conduct random checks on a regular basis,” Agius said.

Further information on the criteria was not disclosed due to Customs protocol.

“Our equipment is amongst the best on the market – state of the art. Nevertheless, we constantly follow the non-intrusive inspections industry to understand if there are newer versions. Enhancement is very costly, but at the same time this is money well spent,” Agius said.

The recent surge in container busts originating from South America has thrown a spotlight on countries of origin that tend to fall in with traditional risk profiles in the so-called war on drugs.

“You can say that some countries pose a higher risk and therefore cargo arriving from there is most likely to be flagged and selected for control,” Agius said. “When drugs in a container are uncovered, the police anti-drug squad step in. Immediately after a drug find, we contact the police who in turn inform the duty magistrate. From there on the substance is passed over to the judicial authorities,” he said.

The container containing the drugs is held at the Customs warehouse accompanied by 24-hour police protection until a magistrate is assigned to the case.

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