Some thoughts on illicit trade

28 June 2016
By Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General, World Customs Organization

Much has been said about illicit trade and over the years many articles touching on this subject have been published in this magazine covering, amongst others, drugs, tobacco, ivory, counterfeiting, cash and dual-use goods. In this edition we put the spotlight on some lesser known illicit trade issues such as cultural goods, small arms, fisheries crime, and illicit pesticides, in an endeavour to share pragmatic ideas and ways that can help us to devise strategies in which to confront these existing menaces.

In this article I will be taking stock of what we have achieved together in the past few months, guided by the WCO Council, Policy Commission and Enforcement Committee. Circumstances that were out of our control also impacted on our work, such as the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium; France, Lebanon, Mali, Tunisia, Turkey and other countries. This has led to intensively increased discussions on global security and how the Customs community can enhance its response to these threats to international trade and peace.

Building operational capacity

One of the main results of these discussions was the Punta Cana Resolution which the WCO released in December 2015, emphasizing the key role that Customs administrations play in tackling illicit cross-border movements of goods that could ultimately support terrorism and terrorist financing. In this resolution, we encourage Customs authorities to include security as part of their mandate and functions, where appropriate, by incorporating it into their strategic plans and disseminating the goal to the front lines.

To support WCO Members in building or enhancing their border security capacity, we recently launched the Border Security Initiative (BSI). WCO Members, following a specific WCO or United Nations (UN) border security-related assessment mission, can request technical assistance from the BSI in developing tangible plans to support the implementation of relevant security measures.

Under the ‘Strategic Trade Controls Enforcement (STCE) project,’ we continued our work on strategic goods, which are defined as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), conventional weapons and related items involved in the development, production or use of such weapons and their delivery systems. In this regard we produced a curriculum and modules for training purposes, and also oversaw a global law enforcement operation in 2014.

Besides detecting and preventing illicit trafficking of strategic goods in international supply chains, the operation helped us to evaluate standard operating procedures and work practices in this area, and allowed us to tailor our capacity building and technical assistance activities to address any outlined gaps. In particular, we started training frontline officers, providing them with the required information and know-how on how to detect dual-use goods. Future trainers were also targeted in order to strengthen the training capacities of our human resources.

Under Programme Global Shield (PGS) – an initiative launched in 2010 to monitor the trade in 14 chemicals that could be diverted for use in the illegal manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) –officers are trained in the detection and handling of these chemicals, and certain countries were provided with presumptive field test kits for frontline officers, as well as electronic chemical detection devices.

PGS also increases cooperation among countries as well as reaching out to private stakeholders in the chemical industry in order to increase awareness on the dual-use capability of the precursor chemicals they manufactured, distributed or retailed. PGS is a superb  programme, impacting positively on saving lives.

In the security area, other streams of work relate to small arms and light weapons, passenger controls (the utilization of advance passenger information (API) and passenger name record (PNR) data), and the prevention of terrorist financing. Regarding passenger controls more specifically, guidelines on the use of API/PNR have been released, and workshops are planned across the globe to test these guidelines as well as collect best practices from participating countries.

We continue to offer training on risk management in general, with specific programmes focusing on drugs, wildlife, intellectual property rights, etc. The WCO INAMA Project, for example, aims at strengthening the enforcement capacity of targeted Customs administrations in Sub-Saharan Africa, while focusing on the illegal trade in wildlife, particularly endangered species identified in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Multi-agency units

Two projects whose core aims include the development of enforcement capacities at specific ports and airports through the establishment of multi-agency teams are still underway and gaining momentum: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)-WCO Container Control Programme (CCP); and Project AIRCOP.

Port Control Units (PCUs) established under the CCP are, at present, fully operational in 55 ports in 30 countries, and funding for the integration of another 24 WCO Members into the CCP is now available. Given the success of the CCP, a separate joint programme on air cargo control has been established, and specialized units to target suspicious shipments in this transport segment are already operational in Amman, Jordan, and in Karachi, Pakistan, with more to come.

Launched in 2010 to build drug enforcement capacities at international airports, Project AIRCOP has been responsible for the setting up of Joint Airport Interdiction Task Forces (JAITFs) in 16 countries, namely Barbados, Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Jamaica, Mali, Nigeria, Panama, Senegal, and Togo. In addition, four other countries, two in Africa (Ethiopia and Mozambique) and two in South America (El Salvador and Peru), have recently been evaluated with a view to the setting up of JAITFs.

Inter-agency cooperation is at the heart of these initiatives. Among the agencies that Customs must cooperate with is the Police. Key components of such cooperation have been discussed widely at different meetings over the last few months. This has led to agreement that broad-ranging Customs-Police cooperation is a precondition for better coordinated border management (CBM) and that as the two agencies often share overlapping mandates, there is no alternative but to cooperate in these areas.

But cooperation between agencies at the national and international level is not always straightforward. In some fragile and conflict-affected regions especially, the situation at the border is complex with no easy answers. On this subject, I invite you to read the paper written by two researchers working on Customs-related issues, Thomas Cantens, from the WCO, and Gaël Raballand, from the World Bank, entitled ‘A very long border, difficult to cope with: the North of Mali and its borders’ (Une frontière très très longue, un peu difficile à vivre’ : le nord du Mali et ses frontières) – see

Information management

Several WCO applications have been developed to enhance Customs’ data mining and risk analysis capacities. One of them is the nCEN which gives Customs administrations the ability to collect, store, analyse and disseminate law enforcement data effectively at the national level, with the additional possibility to exchange this information at regional and/or international levels. I will not go too much into details as a specific article on the application’s new features is available for readers in this edition of the magazine, but I would encourage all WCO Members to look into implementing nCEN in their administrations.

The WCO Cargo Targeting System (WCO CTS) is another risk management tool. It enables user countries to capture advance electronic cargo manifest information, and to perform risk assessment, profiling and targeting. To date, the WCO CTS has been deployed in six countries, namely the Bahamas, Georgia, Jamaica, the Maldives, Panama, and Sri Lanka. Further deployments are planned in the coming months in Chile, Kenya, the Philippines, and Ukraine. In addition, development of the WCO CTS’ air cargo capability is nearing completion and pilots are planned for later this year.

Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General, World Customs Organization

Information sharing

Back in December 2015 we opened our ‘Information and Intelligence Centre (I2C)’ which acts as an operational contact point for matters related to the WCO’s different enforcement programmes. The I2C also produces intelligence bulletins and facilitates the sharing of information in general. In addition, the I2C team manages the IRIS platform, an information tool that collects all Customs-related news together. To date, the IRIS platform now has over 8,000 users.

Communicating information is one thing, but we also need to obtain more sophisticated knowledge on current smuggling and cross-border criminal activities to better target evolving and emerging risks. The quantification and mapping of illicit markets is critical, as this will enable a fuller understanding of the connections between different forms of trafficking. Here I would like to highlight the importance of the WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN), the tool we developed to record Customs seizures worldwide, allowing the latest trends and patterns linked to illicit trade to be tracked and analysed.

I would urge WCO Members to actively participate in the CEN. All Customs services should do their utmost to ensure that every seizure related to illicit trade, be it drug trafficking, tobacco smuggling or the illegal trade in counterfeit goods, fake medicines, precursor chemicals, stolen artifacts, environmentally-sensitive goods and endangered wildlife, among others, is inputted into the CEN and that the data reported is of a high quality.

The ‘consequence phase’

Not all Customs administrations have investigative powers, but all of them should implement best practices and procedures when dealing with a seizure, in order to facilitate the work of those in charge of the investigation, including the judge who will hear the case.

To provide guidance in this area, back in 2012 the WCO produced a Compendium of Customs Operational Practices for Enforcement and Seizures (COPES) and later secured funding for training with respect to the Compendium’s critical content. A Project Manager was subsequently recruited in March 2015 for the implementation of these training activities. An article dedicated to the project is contained in this edition.

Today, the WCO Secretariat has difficulties in keeping up with training requests, which shows how relevant and successful the project is. The COPES has even been recognized by other organizations that deal with Customs authorities, requesting the deployment of training in areas of activity in which they are active. Of course, we will need more donor funding to meet these requests, thereby enabling us to continue broadening out a complete education process in terms of chain of custody.

Cultural objects

Cultural goods are the subject of a specific draft recommendation, to be submitted to this year’s WCO Council Sessions in July. This initiative came about as a result of a series of high-level meetings with the Heads of other international organizations having a role in the protection of cultural heritage, as well as expert level activities and coordination efforts. I have no doubt that WCO Members will approve, and more importantly, apply it.

Among other things, and besides calling for more cooperation with relevant stakeholders such as experts in the field and cultural institutions, the draft recommendation asks countries to conduct an analysis aimed at identifying and closing the gaps in current legislation and techniques as a means of addressing this scourge. It also encourages Customs authorities to introduce new ‘export certificates,’ or to revise existing certificates, in line with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-WCO Model Export Certificate.

In this edition, Switzerland shares its experience in the fight against the illicit trade in cultural goods and more especially on the legislative changes it adopted recently, and the challenges posed by free ports and Customs warehouses. Other topics that I mentioned earlier are also addressed in the pages of this issue: Canada shares its experience in Customs-Police cooperation; and Australia provides information on its counter-terrorist strategy. Fisheries crime, cybercrime, the trafficking of weapons, illicit pesticides and the use of technology are also interesting reads in this edition of WCO News.

Should you wish to know more or explore ways in which you can collaborate in combatting illicit trade, I invite you to consult the ‘more information’ section at the end of articles. The contributing experts would, I am quite sure, be more than happy to engage with you. After all, the WCO is a unique forum for the global Customs community to share experiences, and a valuable platform for WCO Members to access experts that can support their needs, including the provision of various forms of operational assistance around the scourge of illicit trade.

We must continue to actively strengthen our cooperation, coordination and communication activities if we are to successfully combat illicit trade and our increasingly inter-connected global challenges. It is imperative that we collectively assist one another and stand together, if we want to succeed in our efforts to help communities that we serve to fully seize the benefits of open trade and achieve greater sustainable development and enhanced security.

The WCO remains fully committed to working with its Members and its partners around the world in accomplishing its goal of stopping illicit trade and other cross-border crimes that impact negatively on society, including countries’ international trade, economic growth and social development.


More information