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New Modus Operandi: How organised crime infiltrates the ports of Europe

Europol has launched a joint analysis report with the Security Steering Committee of the ports of Antwerp, Hamburg/Bremerhaven and Rotterdam that looks into the risk and challenges for law enforcement posed by criminal networks in EU ports. 

The EU’s critical infrastructure – notably highways, railways and ports – enable the EU way of life, where free movement of goods and people is a foundational and major factor for economic growth, personal freedom and prosperity. Criminal networks however, driven by the constant desire of growing profits and expansion of their illegal activities, are increasingly working toward the infiltration of and control over major logistical points. EU ports are examples of such major hubs, which is why the Security Steering Committee of the ports of Antwerp, Hamburg/Bremerhaven and Rotterdam, together with Europol, agreed to draft a joint analysis report assessing the threat of infiltration of port infrastructure by organised crime in the EU.

Main findings:

  • The use of misappropriated container reference codes (or so-called PIN code fraud) is gaining traction among criminal networks as a modus operandi for extracting illicit goods from ports. 
  • Criminal networks arrange the infiltration of ports by coordinating local networks of corrupted port insiders.
  • As a side effect of the criminal operations in ports and the rivalry it entails, violence often spills out of major transportation hubs onto the streets of surrounding cities, where competition for distribution takes place.

Main recommendations:

  • International information exchange on the criminal networks’ activities in ports with Europol and amongst EU Member States should be further enhanced.
  • Continuous attention must be paid to the integration of security features in the design of port infrastructure.
  • Implementing public-partnerships to involve all port actors essential for tackling the infiltration of criminal networks in EU ports.

Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Home Affairs said:

The Europol report on criminal networks in ports illustrates what we are up against. It lays bare the sophistication of criminal drug gangs, their strength, and their savagery. The drug traffickers promote corrupt actions and practices sometimes by bribery, sometimes by intimidation. We are working with authorities at all levels to strengthen systems in the fight against the criminal activity this report outlines.

Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle said:

Criminal networks work closely to evade security at land borders and at air and maritime ports. They have one thing in mind – profit. An effective response is closer collaboration between the public and private sector; this will make both sides stronger. This report, the first ever created in cooperation with the ports of Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg/Bremerhaven, is part of building this common front. This information exchange has led to deeper knowledge, which is the most effective weapon against organised crime.

Vulnerabilities of EU ports

Maritime ports in the EU handle some 90 million containers each year, but authorities are able to inspect only between 2% and 10% of them. Meanwhile, it is estimated that in the last few years, at least 200 tonnes of cocaine have been trafficked trough the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam alone. This logistical hurdle represents a challenge for law enforcement and an opportunity for criminal networks needing to access logistical hubs to facilitate their criminal activities. Such criminal networks have therefore infiltrated ports in all continents. 

Europe’s three biggest ports, namely those in Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg, are among the most-targeted by criminal infiltration. The main way criminals do this is through the corruption of shipping companies’ personnel, port workers, importers, transport companies, and representatives of national authorities among other actors, whose actions are necessary to secure the entry of illegal shipments. However, this approach requires corruption of a large number of accomplices. 

In order to focus their efforts and minimise the risks of losing merchandise, organised criminals are seeking new modus operandi that require the corruption of far fewer individuals. Europol’s analysis report on criminal networks in EU ports looks into one specific technique, which exploits misappropriated container reference codes. This requires the corruption of just one individual, along with either the corruption or a Trojan horse style infiltration of extraction teams, who are then paid between 7 and 15% of the value of the illegal shipment.