Smugglers Took To The Water, When Roads Were Closed

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  • When airports and roads were closed because of the pandemic, smugglers took to the water.
  • Small boats, often moving with their lights off at night, were reported to be ferrying drugs.
  • The largest share of the drugs entering Sweden arrive by road link from Denmark.

When airports and roads were closed because of the pandemic, smugglers took to the water, says an article published on politico website. 

What did they discover?

At the height of the pandemic, when roads into Sweden were largely closed, customs and coast guard patrols turned their attention to the sea — and what they discovered alarmed them. 

Small boats, often moving with their lights off at night, were reported to be ferrying drugs and other illicit cargo across the water between Denmark and Sweden. 

Meanwhile, the crew on larger cargo boats passing Sweden were believed to be throwing packages overboard for smaller craft to collect. 

Patrik Linden, a coast guard station chief based in the southern Swedish port city of Malmö, recently launched a joint operation with the customs agency, dubbed Operation Porpoise, to track maritime smugglers. He told local media this summer he was worried his agency was only seeing “the tip of the iceberg.”

Need to keep an eye on smugglers 

Now, three months of intelligence-gathering later, he said the joint mission needs to continue.

“We need to keep an eye on this,” he told POLITICO. “It is important that we increase the risk of discovery for maritime smugglers.”

Police assessments suggest 100 to 150 tonnes of illegal drugs are imported into Sweden each year — around 52 percent hashish, 22 percent marijuana, 12 percent cocaine, 11 percent amphetamine, and 3 percent other drugs. The industry generates between €1 billion and €1.5 billion a year, authorities say.

The largest share of the drugs entering Sweden arrive by road link from Denmark — via the mighty Öresund Bridge, of Nordic noir fame — but a significant share also comes in via air and sea.

Taking to the water

When the pandemic hit, Denmark shut the Öresund Bridge and most air links were suspended. Smugglers’ sea routes, however, remained open.

Two multi-million-euro cocaine finds — one on a cargo boat in the western port of Uddevalla and one on a remote beach in Nyhamnsläge, north of Malmö — drew attention to the scale of those operations.

Swedish customs data showed a spike in drug finds in 2020, with the amount of cocaine seized rising to 216 kilograms from 43 kilograms the year before. The Uddevalla and Nyhamnsläge cases accounted for more than half of that total. 

Experts say they believe the use of boats to run drugs had been on the rise for several years, but likely rose again during the pandemic. The reduction in air and road traffic also freed up official resources to focus on maritime smuggling, helping them get a better feel for such activity. 

Exact figures for maritime smuggling remain hard to come by, however, with successful raids in the seas off Sweden still rare. The journey for a small boat moving between Denmark and Sweden can be as little as 10 minutes, and the waters often teem with wholly innocent traffic.

Surprise in the seaweed

Swedish authorities say illicit drugs coming into the country have various origins, with hashish coming largely from Morocco and cocaine from South America. The latter usually approaches Europe on large cargo boats, which head to the Netherlands first. 

In ports like Rotterdam, the cocaine can be shifted to smaller cargo boats heading to more remote markets like Scandinavia. Those drugs can then be offloaded at destination ports, like Gothenburg or Uddevalla, or dropped overboard en route to be fished out of the water.

After passing through key European entry points like Dutch or Spanish ports, illicit drugs can also be moved to land routes to cross the continent and back to small boats for the last leg over the water to the Swedish coast.

Nyhamnsläge case

The customs agency posted a dramatic video of its success in the Uddevalla harbor bust, with one officer telling a colleague to “get [a smuggler] on the ground” as they try to flee. 

But it was the Nyhamnsläge case — in part because of its scale and in part because of the investigation’s quirky nature — that drew more national attention to the illegal traffic off Sweden’s coast.

A local man walking his dog along Nyhamnsläge beach last September came across several holdalls wrapped in bin liners, held shut by tape. Suspecting the brick-like objects inside were drugs, he called the police, who arrived and kept watch from behind sand dunes to see if anyone would claim the bags. 

In the meantime, police received a tip from the coast guard, who had rescued two men floating off Nyhamnsläge in a boat with a damaged propeller the night before. The men, both from Stockholm, said they had been out fishing, but the late hour and stormy weather led the coast guard to report the incident as suspicious.

By the next day, the police tapped the phones of the “fishermen” and heard one bemoan his failure to find the €10 million worth of cocaine he was supposed to have collected from the wake of a cargo ship. “The idiot who threw it out, the captain, tied it up with some damn neon string, one loop round like a bloody present, so it broke loose from the buoy,” the suspect said, according to police intercepts.

A court in the south coast city of Helsingborg recently handed both men stiff prison sentences, largely because of the incriminating telephone evidence. The man believed to have run the retrieval operation was sentenced to 10 years, and his accomplice to six years. 

Neither the boat from which the drugs were thrown or the men’s wider network were ever identified. 

Linden of the coast guard said his agency needs to keep up intensified intelligence gathering at sea while their partners in the customs agency continue to pay more attention to boats in the myriad small harbors along Sweden’s coast. 

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Source: politico 

 

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