How organised crime infiltrates Europe’s ports

In early April this year, Europol published a joint analysis report with the Security Steering Committee of the ports of Antwerp, Hamburg/Bremerhaven and Rotterdam that analyses the risks and challenges for police posed by criminal networks in European Union ports.

Criminal networks, driven by the constant desire to increase profits and the expansion of their illegal activities, increasingly work towards infiltration and control of the main logistical points. Therefore, EU ports are a clear example of these large centres. Among the main current characteristics of these logistics points are the following:

  • The use of embezzled container reference codes (or so-called ‘PIN code fraud’) is gaining traction among criminal networks as a modus operandi to extract illicit goods from ports.
  • Criminal networks organise port infiltration by coordinating local networks of corrupted insiders.
  • As a side effect of criminal operations in the ports and the rivalry that goes with it, violence often occurs from the main transportation hubs to the streets of the surrounding cities, where competition for distribution takes place.

The main recommendations offered by the report are:

  • Further improve the exchange of international information on the activities of criminal networks in ports with Europol and between EU Member States.
  • Pay continuous attention to the integration of safety elements in the design of port infrastructure.
  • Implement public partnerships to involve all essential port stakeholders to address the infiltration of criminal networks in EU ports.

EU seaports handle some 90 million containers each year, but authorities can only inspect between 2% and 10%. Meanwhile, it is estimated that at least 200 tons of cocaine have been trafficked through the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam alone in recent years. This logistical obstacle represents a challenge for law enforcement and an opportunity for criminal networks that need access to logistical centres to facilitate their criminal activities. As a result, these networks have infiltrated ports on all continents.

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

To focus their efforts and minimise the risk of loss of goods, organised criminals are looking for a new modus operandi that requires the corruption of far fewer individuals. Europol’s analysis report on criminal networks in EU ports analyses one specific technique, which exploits embezzled container reference codes. This requires the corruption of a single individual, along with Trojan horse-style corruption or infiltration of the extraction teams, who are then paid between 7 and 15% of the value of the illegal shipment.


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