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Fighting P: stopping illegal imports

Fighting 'P'
Stopping illegal imports

On the frontline of New Zealand’s border protection against illegal drugs, Customs officers have a strong sense of being the gatekeepers and the guardians of the community. John Bishop meets some of them to talk about the challenges of stopping the import of illicit substances — in particular 'P'.

The New Zealand’s Police’s National Strategic Assessment prepared in 2011 sets out the challenge for control and enforcement agencies involved in battling the drug trade.

 “Strong domestic demand for a range of illicit drugs continues to generate significant profits for criminals and criminal networks facilitating the importation, manufacture and distribution of illicit drugs in New Zealand.”

Customs is an important player in the Prime Minister’s war on methamphetamine or ‘P’, which is assessed as the most dangerous drug in the illegal drug trade, because there is an ongoing demand and considerable profits. Organised crime is involved, as well as substantial harm being caused to the community.

Mark Day, Customs’ Investigations Manager states the realities of the methamphetamine trade. “It is directly linked to Asian organised crime groups, and it’s directly linked to supplying the motorcycle gangs in New Zealand who are responsible for the manufacture and distribution.”

Methamphetamine is made from pseudoephedrine, a cold and flu medication. It is imported as Contac NT, pink granules which are 90 percent pseudoephedrine. It’s then chemically converted to ‘P’, or crystal meth, in illegal labs.

Methamphetamine releases neurotransmitters in the brain, producing a sense of euphoria that may last as long as 12 hours. Its side effects include nausea and aagitation, irritability, talkativeness, panic, compulsive fascination with repetitive tasks, violence, and confusion.

Consumed regularly it makes users hyperactive, paranoid, and violent with wild mood swings. It is also expensive which means that in the familiar pattern of addictive drug use, users exploit and neglect their families, and turn quickly to crime to get cash to satisfy their cravings.

The number of seizures and the volume of pseudoephedrine seized have both fallen from a peak in 2010, and are now back at 2007 levels. There are a number of theories behind this, including that the social appeal of ‘P’ has declined.

A Ministry of Health survey suggests usage among adults (aged 15 -64) has fallen from 2.5 percent of the population in 2007/08 to just 1 percent last year. However prices for ‘P’ remain about the same and importation of Contac NT, the basic ingredient from which ‘P’ is manufactured continues strongly.

In 2009, the government adopted a Methamphetamine Action Plan to tackle the problem on arrange of fronts, including measures to combat importation, distribution, and offering better treatment for users.

For Customs, two major components of the plan were new technology, notably surveillance equipment, and improved cooperation with the Chinese authorities — vital given that most of the pseudoephedrine imported into New Zealand comes from China and that the trade is controlled by Chinese organised crime syndicates.

There are three routes which drug traffickers use: by sea, which means concealment in cargo; by air, which is either air cargo, or air mail where drugs are hidden in envelopes and parcels; or by person, where a drug courier or ‘mule’ carries the drugs through the airport either on their person or in their luggage.

At each entry point and for every type of good customs officers are looking for the unusual, something that does not fit the normal pattern of documentation or packaging, something that is out of the ordinary or against expectations in either the goods or in the behaviour of the people seeking entry to New Zealand.

Intelligence from similar agencies in overseas countries helps detection. This is an international war, but New Zealand is not fighting it alone. And the new arrangements with the Chinese authorities are already making a difference to the flow of drugs.

Customs operates in a largely electronic world, where all goods, except mail, have an electronic manifest.

Cliff Russell, Customs’ Manager, Air Cargo Inspection Facility, at Auckland International Airport, says “the goods go through a range of checks against a series of factors called data elements; the consignor, the source country, the description of the goods, the recipient, and others.

“Based on this information, we generate requests to examine – these comprise about 2 percent of the total volume of cargo.”

Assessments cover all goods except mail.

All inbound and outbound international mail comes through the International Mail Centre (IMC) at Auckland International Airport. Inbound mail and parcels are tipped onto large conveyor belts and sniffer dogs walk along the belts sniffing the parcels. The items are also X-rayed.

At the IMC, Ken Parker, Chief Customs Officer, sees all manner of techniques used to get drugs through.

“I’ve seen stuff put inside pens and lipstick holders, cannabis seeds mixed in with sweets, ziplock bags with 10 LSD tabs inside, ecstasy tabs concealed in little fluorescent light bulbs. There’s no end to the inventiveness of smugglers – whatever they think will get through. It’s real detective work and involves intensive X-ray and hand searching of objects.”

Other than drugs, items regularly seized are liquor, weapons, or parts of weapons, and food. Keeping New Zealand safe isn’t just about trying to prevent illegal drugs entering the country.

Cliff Russell infers the smugglers’ strategy as one of “sending ten packages through the mail, expecting perhaps six or seven to get through. Losing a few is just part of the the cost of doing business.”

One of the later channels to open up is Silk Road which has been described in international media as "the underground website where you can buy any drug imaginable" and "the Amazon.com of illegal drugs". 

Officers look for clues. “Is the packaging consistent with what we would regard as being normal, and also is the X-ray image consistent with what the outside of the package says is inside? What we are trying to establish is which items might be of interest to us.”

Seizures of drugs from international mail are now only about a quarter of what it was at its peak flow in 2009, but it is still a popular route.

“You can get from a few hundred grams up to kilograms — potentially up to 18 kilograms which is the most you can send by post. Five to six kilograms in a seizure is not unusual. How often?  Twice a week would not be unusual.”

Similar to the IMC, at the Sea Cargo Inspection Facility, X-ray equipment can project deep penetration images of the contents of sacks and boxes onto a screen. The camera can zoom in on unusual or unexpected items just like a medical X-Ray locates a tumour or a malignant growth. It’s just one piece of technology Customs officers have at their disposal.

At Auckland International Airport, the travellers can be watched via wall-mounted cameras as they leave their plane and walk down the corridors through duty-free and down the stairs or escalators to the arrivals hall.

The passengers are arriving, and Customs officers in the immigration booths are looking for odd, unusual, or quirky behaviour. Who is nervous, sweating, looking edgy, or apprehensive? A solid visual inspection is undertaken while the traveller is standing at the booth completing the entry procedure.

Travel data can also indicate persons of interest. Maybe they’ve come from a country where drugs are common. They have no luggage or not much; alternatively they have far more than would seem reasonable for the length of their stay or for a person of their background, country of origin, or occupation.

Each of these triggers and the answers they give to the Customs officers’ questions at the passport booth are considered by the officer. Peter Lewis, Customs’ Airport Manager explains that if the officer has further concerns, the person may be diverted for a one-on-one discussion and a full inspection of their luggage.

There are some notable success stories which Customs is able to discuss when the cases have been through the courts.

Operation Generator in 2009 involved approximately 40 kilograms of Contac NT disguised as laundry powder which the granules look very similar to.

When a quantity of drugs is identified, the officers on the frontline advise the Investigations section and the matter may be taken to an initial planning group which makes a decision about what is to happen next.

Mark Day explains that there are simply not the resources to investigate every case of illegal importation. We prioritise what we take on, while considering Customs’ priorities and community harm potential

“We did an operation in late 2011/early 2012, Operation Ironbridge, where we responded to every package of pseudoephedrine seized at the border with officers going into the Pakuranga/Howick area and knocking on the doors of all the addresses that had been sent drugs. In the next six weeks, the syndicates didn’t send a single package to that region of Auckland. They moved to the North Shore.”

Mark Day sees more changes ahead.

“Contac NT has been the predominant commodity that has been used. They’ve just changed to white powder which has pseudoephedrine in it, but now is a completely different thing for us to detect. That’s a challenge for us and a very smart move by them. Now they are disguising it in plain sight.”

According to the Police’s most recent national strategic assessment report, crime syndicates will move to mass manufacture ‘P’ in the Pacific Islands and distribute it to gangs by landing small boats on remote coastal spots around New Zealand.

Mr Day ponders that suggestion. “Evidence no... suspicion yes.

“There are far more secure supply chains than using small craft. The other thing is that they have clearly made a move not to put people with their commodity, because they have used sea freight and they have used mail. They are not predominantly bringing the stuff through the airport.

Mark Day is pessimistic, optimistic, and realistic in more-or-less equal quantities.

“The most significant change that we have made is forming a closer working relationship with Chinese law enforcement. We have had a delegation over here and we have sent staff there, in the past six months. They have reacted extremely positively and so our liaison officers up there – both police and customs – are having a marked impact.

 “That cooperation will be fundamental to our success. We have done well getting people involved and getting genuine buy in from the Chinese Government. They actually locked up a syndicate late last year.”

He has a message for the bad guys.

“Stay in the business long enough and there’s a good chance you’ll get arrested, prosecuted and jailed.