Weak Customs Enforcement Undermines Border Security

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Photo: FM

In the past two months, containers holding explosives for illegal fishing and precursor chemicals for the production of prohibited substances have arrived on Timor-Leste’s shores. The National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) confiscated nine containers holding the precursor chemicals at the Dili Port on January 23rd. On February 26th, the Scientific Police for Criminal Investigations (PSIK) captured two containers carrying explosives intended for illegal fishing. These incidents indicate the weakness of the current Customs system, as well as wider problems around the overlapping jurisdictions of security actors. Both the current caretaker regime and the Government that forms after the May elections must address these vulnerabilities.

The entrance of these containers suggests corruption among Customs personnel. Such weak border control can make Timor-Leste seem like a convenient transit route for smugglers. For example, the shipments of precursor chemicals confiscated at Dili Port on January 23rd were bound for Indonesia. In order to prevent further deterioration of the situation, policymakers must strengthen oversight of Customs. While the Government has already initiated fiscal reform within the Customs system, personnel continue to engage in petty corruption. This poses a significant challenge to Timor-Leste’s security at the Dili Port, the Nicolau Lobato International Airport, and the land frontier with Indonesia. Facing this situation, the Government should initiate auditing of the Customs agency and vigorously prosecute individual personnel implicated in corruption cases.

More generally, maritime security remains a vulnerability, since criminals may seek to avoid the Dili Port altogether and enter the country via its largely unmonitored coastline. As the case of shark poaching by Hong Long Fisheries in September 2017 highlighted, Timor-Leste needs to develop the capacity to patrol its territorial waters. Furthermore, the recent contraband shipments highlight the need to create the long-planned National Maritime Authority, which would coordinate between Customs and the other agencies responsible for maritime security.

In addition, while the confiscation of the recent shipments represents a triumph for the PNTL and PSIK, the Government of Timor-Leste should clarify the roles of the different security agencies. The PNTL and the Falintil-Defence Force of Timor-Leste (F-FDTL) each have their own intelligence wings, the Police Information Service (SIP) and the Military Information Service (SIM), in addition to the National Intelligence Service (NIS) that reports to the Prime Minister’s office. Despite Law 9/2008 regulating cooperation between these agencies, the boundaries between their mandates remain ill-defined. Furthermore, the PNTL Criminal Investigative Service (SIK) and PSIK continue to compete with each other regarding the prevention and investigation of organised crime, although this legally falls within PSIK’s mandate. In addition, money-laundering crimes can fall within the jurisdictions of the Anti-Corruption Commission (KAK), the PNTL Criminal Investigative Service (SIK), and PSIK, raising the question of who should address such cases. This confusion highlights the need for a law clarifying which organizations investigate which crimes. The Government must take steps to differentiate the roles of all these organizations in order effectively address Timor-Leste’s security challenges.

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