Testing Customs enforcement practices: the ambitious agenda of the COPES Project

28 June 2016
By the WCO Communications Service

The ambitious goal envisaged by the creators of the WCO COPES Project was to initiate a dialogue reflecting on the working methods used to combat fraud, from the identification of an offence to the storage of seized assets, including reporting, collecting and preserving evidence.

In addition to the fact that not all Customs administrations enjoy the same prerogatives and the same ability with respect to enforcement, every country deals with infringements of the law using its own specific procedures. In other words, the procedures and practices for investigating, identifying and prosecuting Customs offences – whether criminal or civil – are laid down exclusively in national legislation.

The aim of the WCO is not to advocate a particular means of enforcing legislation or managing seizures, but to present a range of methods and practices currently used by various WCO Members (applicable to various legal systems), and to encourage administrations to review the efficacy of their procedures and practices in terms of operational ease and the authority vested in them by law.

The initial step was to compile a ‘Compendium of Customs Operational Practices for Enforcement and Seizures,’ or COPES. This was first published in May 2012 in the WCO’s two working languages (English and French), and was subsequently updated in 2013 and translated into Arabic, Russian, Serbian and Spanish.

“Seizures and other enforcement measures are everyday occurrences for all Customs administrations that require appropriate risk management and we regularly discuss these issues at various WCO meetings. So, it seemed appropriate that it would be helpful to work, under the auspices of the WCO, on a document which would combine relevant practical know-how and examples, and thus help to improve our methods and strengthen our border agency role,” said David Dolan, one of the early driving forces behind the development of the COPES Project.

Dolan currently heads the Division for International Organizations and Agreements at the US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) Office of International Affairs in Washington D.C., and was formerly CBP’s Customs Attaché at the United States Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, responsible for, among others, engaging with the WCO and its Members on global Customs issues.

An ambitious project

Whatever enforcement powers an administration may have, field officers are in the front line when it comes to seizures of goods, and their role is thus crucial in determining whether investigations and prosecutions are successful. In fact, it is vital to make them aware of the linkage between a seizure, the collection of evidence, the investigation, and the prosecution.

When it comes to, for example, revenue fraud or a seizure of cash linked to drug trafficking, the official in charge of documenting the findings must collect pertinent evidence, in accordance with the prescribed format, and know how to document the evidence to assist future investigations and prosecutions, and ultimately, convictions. Similarly, information included in the findings must be exploited in such a way as to feed future cases.

The Compendium considers, in turn, issues related to the role of legislation, procedural aspects, petitions and recourse, evidentiary considerations, coordinated border management (CBM), integrity, security and safety of Customs personnel, as well as accountability and performance management. It also provides examples of forms, checklists and other worksheets, along with seizure regime flow charts designed to help administrations evaluate their seizure procedures and identify areas where there may be room for revision and/or improvement.

“There was also a desire to apply a systematic approach to this work by developing global standards that Members and other stakeholders could align with, so that a stronger case for capacity building improvements could be made, because the WCO is very well positioned to promote such practices. Along these lines, improvements could be relatively simple to implement, like new accountability practices (access log books, chain of custody forms, etc.) and developing new procedures to safeguard seized assets, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where Members might actively enhance their legal authorities and/or potentially receive new equipment from committed donors to better employ their seizures and enforcement practices,” said Dolan.

Training seminars

In 2014, the WCO was able to secure funding for the continuation of the project and, in March 2015, it appointed a project manager to develop new educational support material, and oversee its promotion and distribution to WCO Members.

Training modules were developed around the following topics: risk; storage and disposal of seized goods; sourcing of information and sharing of intelligence; coordinated activities with other agencies; recording and documentation of information; definitions and types of evidence; integrity and traceability of evidence; practical interrogation techniques; the role of the prosecutor; and management of cases.

Seminars have already been held for Customs officials in almost all of the WCO’s six regions. They consisted of a general presentation on the COPES project, and the relevance of the topics covered given the challenges for administrations in regard to cross-border criminality. The seminars combine theory and practice – for example, during the seminar organized in Hong Kong, China, a tour of storage facilities and presentations on working methods provided, among other things, a practical illustration of those parts of the course which covered best practice with respect to the sealing of seized goods and the methods used to ensure their traceability.

“The aim, at regional level, was not only to train frontline Customs officials, even if they are the principle target audience, but rather to publicize the availability of training and its benefits to high-level management dealing with training and enforcement, in order to convince them of the benefits of deploying the training programme by emphasizing the advantages associated with it in the mid- to long-term”, said Gilles Thomas, the WCO COPES Project Coordinator.

This interactive training course has a number of advantages. “It not only provides participants with practical tools for immediate use, but also an appropriate platform for discussion, in order to identify methods commensurate with specific local conditions,” continued Thomas.

His view is that “the training module is for all administrations, regardless of their individual competencies,” adding that “the goal is to open the vision of officers by recreating their environment within the context of a repressive supply chain, and that acquiring such a vision would also enable them to better value their work.”

Two national workshops have been held to date: one in Peru, the other in Senegal. In both cases, the personnel receiving the training were field officers working as part of multidisciplinary teams:

  • In Peru, the opening ceremony of the seminar that took place in July 2015 was attended by over 100 participants. Day one enabled WCO experts to familiarize themselves with the methods used by the enforcement agencies working at the port of Callao, and to tailor the training they would be giving the next day accordingly;


  • In Senegal, training was given in February 2016 in Dakar to officials of the Joint Airport Interdiction Task Force (JAITF), formed as part of the WCO’s Project AIRCOP which aims to strengthen anti-drug-trafficking capacity in 20 or so airports around the world. Here too, trainers first observed the working methods used, before moving on to a more theoretical stage.

“They tell us about their procedures which we compare with the standards and knowledge adopted by COPES experts, and we engage in a dialogue with them, examining in detail ways in which practices can be improved. The training is very interactive. The aim is to help them to develop their own methods,” Thomas explained.

He added that, “Most trained Customs officers are very motivated. They are good at detecting fraud, but not necessarily at documenting their findings, as they don’t know what constitutes evidence or how to collect it.”

Due process

For a long time, it was as if, in Customs matters, the end justified the means. This meant a sizeable increase in the powers of the administration, both to detect and identify Customs offences, and to prosecute and punish them. Now, Customs legislation has to evolve in line with the general trend towards mandatory observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Customs legislation can no longer be separated from other rights.

As well as promoting the use of modern and innovative methods likely to help reduce the operating costs of enforcement services and the cost of detentions and seizures, the WCO is seeking, through the COPES Project, to emphasize the need for systems to be in place that ensure a degree of ‘due process’ for those parties that are involved, including a high degree of transparency and integrity, so that the parties can choose the right option for resolving the issue.

The WCO is also advocating the preparation of a ‘code of conduct’ for seizures and asset forfeitures, a model of which is appended to the WCO Model Code of Ethics and Conduct.

The road ahead

COPES training activities are set to intensify in the months ahead. Enforcement teams taking part in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)-WCO Container Control Programme and Project AIRCOP are likely to benefit as a result. The COPES Compendium itself will be updated, and the educational support material used in training will be expanded and improved.


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Malaysia destroys huge ivory trove

By Agence France-Presse (AFP)

On 14 April 2016, Malaysia destroyed 9.5 tons of elephant ivory it had seized over the years, which authorities hope will help deter smugglers who have long used the country as a trans­shipment point.

The huge pile of African elephant tusks, estimated to be worth 20 million US dollars, was first fed into an industrial crusher to be pulverized, and then incinerated in a giant furnace at the Kualiti Alam Waste Management Centre in Port Dickson in southern Malaysia.

Malaysia has previously announced in its Parliament that 4,624 ivory tusks were confiscated between 2011 and 2014. “This is our first-ever ivory destruction. We want to send a strong message to the world that Malaysia does not compromise in protecting endangered species,” Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP.

The international ivory trade, with rare exceptions, has been outlawed since 1989 after the population of African elephants declined from millions in the mid-20th century to just 600,000 by the end of the 1980s. But poachers and smugglers have conti­nued to exploit demand, mainly from Asia and particularly China, where ivory is highly prized for medicinal and deco­rative uses.

Malaysia, a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), has seized a number of shipments over the years, mostly by sea. In March this year, officials said that they had also confiscated 159 kg of ivory smuggled by passengers aboard commercial flights.

The Minister said that the tusks destroyed on 14 April origina­ted from 11 African countries ranging from Ghana to Tanzania. “They were publicly destroyed to deter smugglers,” he said, while adding that it was also partly in response to questions raised by conservationists over the fate of seized ivory. “I do not want any of the seized ivory lost. If the ivory is no longer needed to be kept for evidence, we will destroy it,” added the Minister.

The event was witnessed by foreign diplomats and conservation groups. “We look forward to these good intentions being bols­tered by concrete actions to tackle the factors that have made Malaysia a key transit point in the global ivory trade,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, the Programme Manager for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia – an international wildlife trade monitoring network.

Published with the kind permission of AFP, the world’s third largest international news agency headquartered in Paris, France.

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