When it comes to the transport of illegal products, we know about things like bus transfers or shipping containers arriving in ports on a daily basis. But what about air smuggling by passengers? This means of transportation may also be a vector of illicit trade. Stop:Illegal looks into what is happening in France to address this potential criminal activity.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many airports have become reinforced control checkpoints for passengers. Checked luggage is inspected and filtered; sworn-in security agents check passengers and carry-on bags; and the systematic labeling of luggage facilitates identification of people trying to smuggle dangerous items. While civilian air transportation is clearly organized to address terrorist threats, the issue of trafficking in illicit merchandise doesn’t seem to be a high priority. “It happens that illicit products are found during controls, but [airport authorities’] initial role is not to detect trafficked goods,” as the assistant director for safety and defense at the direction générale de l’aviation civile (DGAC), noted in an interview for Le Figaro.
Airport authorities have begun, little by little, to pay attention to the trafficking of illegal goods such as illicit tobacco. For proof, look at the January 2018 commitment made by French Minister of Public Action and Accounts, Gérald Darmanin, as highlighted during the French Customs presentation of its 2018 results: “The Minister of Public Action and Accounts has made the fight against tobacco trafficking a top priority for customs. This results in a strengthening of controls on the whole territory: at land borders, in ports, airports and train stations, but also in postal triage centers and on the Internet.”
The strengthening of controls in airports has quickly yielded concrete outcomes. In the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, tightening the net on tobacco traffickers has contributed to an increase of 20 percent in seizures on the territory between 2017 and 2018. Out of the 8.7 tons of illegal tobacco seized the past year, 5.2 tons were discovered during operations at the Lyon-Saint-Exupéry airport, as reported by Le Progrès.
These numbers provide a glimpse of the importance of air transportation for criminal organizations with dealings in illicit tobacco imports into France.
Main entry points of illicit tobacco by air
Illicit trade is facilitated by low penalties against offenders; i.e., for criminals, the potential gains of high profit outweigh the possible loss (the consequences of getting caught). This will ultimately affect not only big international airlines and airports, but also the low-cost air companies as well. It is a problem rooted in lack of enforcement and poor sanctions that exceeds a specific airline or travel route.
Customs officers from the Bordeaux-Mérignac airport, with 10 million yearly travelers, confirm the existence of illicit goods transiting through their airport: “Four regions of origin have been identified: Maghreb, Western Africa, the Arab Peninsula and, finally, Eastern Europe.”
Analyzing the origin of seizures is crucial for customs officers, as it allows for the detection of trends and growth of new criminal networks.
Who dares traffic illicit tobacco by air?
Airport authorities led detailed investigations that contributed to identifying roads taken by traffickers, as well as their flight frequency. This can ultimately help determine if one is dealing with a lone trafficker or a criminal network. Customs officers of the Bordeaux-Mérignac airport explain it in this way: “You know that when an individual makes over 50 entries a year into the Schengen Space, he/she is often working for a criminal organization. It is not the same when individuals work on their own.”
Indeed, several types of trafficking that go via air have some things in common. There is ant trafficking, as customs officials call it. Ant trafficking usually involves low quantities transported by someone operating alone. But in addition to this low-scale traffic, more organized criminal operations use so-called mules to carry contraband products across borders. These mules are just the tip of the iceberg: they are often part of criminally organized networks that replicate the modus operandi used to illegally introduce drugs to a country. Once on land, the illicit goods become part of everyday life, feeding illegal distribution channels such as street sellers.
In order to cover their tracks and limit the risks of confiscation, traffickers send people from various backgrounds to smuggle. This was especially notable with the seizure made by Roissy-Charles de Gaulle customs in September 2018. A passenger on a Bamako-Paris flight was intercepted with eight bags containing 581 cigarette packs, for a total trade value of over 46,400 euros on the French market. According to the news, she explained to the authorities that she was asked, in exchange for a few hundred euros, to give the merchandise to an accomplice waiting for her in the arrival zone of the Parisian airport.
It is important to note that in some cases crew members have been implicated in incidents of small- and medium-scale cigarette trafficking schemes. A particular case involving a steward and a stewardess of a low-cost company was revealed in 2012 after they were intercepted with 13,800 cigarettes in their suitcases.
Sometimes, small quantities of illicit cigarettes intercepted by airport customs officers indicate ant trafficking—that is, relying on just one person for each passage. These limited runs are made by criminal organizations engaged in “poly-criminality” to establish concrete strategies. The cigarettes are used as test pilots to determine if this is a viable avenue for further exploitation.
As illustrated by the French example, tobacco smuggling uses several cross-border routes, both in and out of the EU. In order to organize this trade, a plane is usually used, although security prevents large volumes of goods from being transported. This particular method has made the role of customs services ever more crucial; also of growing importance is ensuring the exchange of information between airports.
One thing is certain: More enforcement and stronger penalties are needed if we want to deter criminal organizations from making air smuggling by passengers a daily activity. Cooperation between different airport-controlling bodies from different countries (and regions) is of the essence.
Written by STOP: ILLEGAL