Drug Trafficking: Why Did Timor-Leste’s Customs Authorities not Detect Illicit Goods Crossing the Border?

Drug Trafficking: Why Did Timor-Leste’s Customs Authorities not Detect Illicit Goods Crossing the Border? post thumbnail image

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On May 29th, 2019 security services of Mota-Ain, Atambua, Indonesia arrested two Timorese nationals (a married couple) at the border crossing of Batugade, where customs officers discovered the presence of narcotics hidden within a printer. These were later identified as 1.861kg of MDMA/Ecstasy.

The following day (May 30th, 2019), the PNTL arrested three other suspects from the Philippines (J.B., M, and J) in Dili, identified as the suppliers of the illicit drugs in question. J.B. is the owner of the company JVK International Movers, which acts as a customs broker for the import and export customs clearance process. During the investigation, J.B. testified to Timorese investigators that he had imported drugs through Dili airport a total of five times, with the last shipment arriving in March 2019. He stated that the narcotics shipments were destined for Indonesia, and that he utilized his staff to smuggle illicit substances across the border in the hope of going undetected by customs officials.

Why did Timor-Leste’s Batugade customs officers not detect the shipment? According to regulations any goods that enter and leave national territories are to be inspected by the customs service, both by means of an x–ray security procedure and physical inspections. Such procedures should be implemented at customs security checkpoints on land, air, and sea borders.

According to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for customs authorities, imported and exported goods must first be scanned by x-ray machine; if suspicions arise, goods should be inspected physically. If the x-ray machine does not identify any risk, this signifies that these goods have not been identified as illicit. If during the process of the x–ray scan, suspicious objects and potential hiding places are identified, the goods should then be submitted for physical inspections.

In the case of the Timorese couple caught smuggling illicit narcotics, the drugs were concealed in a printer and managed to pass undiscovered by government-appointed Batugade customs officials. The question that then arises is whether the x-ray machine was malfunctioning at the time, or whether customs staff at Batugade failed to identify the concealed substances?

Fundasaun Mahein’s (FM) observations note that when the printer used by the suspects arrived at the Batugade customs post and went for inspection through the x-ray security machine it was, in fact, identified as containing some suspicious elements elements. According to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) this should have led to a physical inspection. However, customs officials disregarded the SOP, and the suspicious objects were not submitted for the more thorough physical inspection.

As the testimony of J.B. identified, failures in customs searches are not only taking place at the Batugade border crossing, but also at Dili airport. At this important entry point, customs officials failed to detect smuggled MDMA/Ecstasy at least five times. FM’s monitoring of Dili airport revealed that customs controls are not yet effective as customs officials do not often utilize the SOPs. FM observed that x-ray machines at security points are not employed to their full potential, and are sometimes found abandoned by customs staff. This includes the exit gate used by outbound passengers, which still lacks the necessary customs staff to be effectively managed. Therefore, this suggests that there are security issues in the processing of both inbound and outbound passengers.

The identified security issues above are opportunities for transnational organized crime networks to continue to exploit Timor-Leste as a transit route for the overseas trafficking of illicit goods. There is increasing evidence that the situation is worsening. This begs the question as to whether illicit goods have simply escaped discovery by customs authorities in the last few years, or whether customs authorities have now been infiltrated by organized criminal networks? Perhaps it is a mixture of both.

Finally, to improve security failures there is a need for examination and investigation into the state institutions which operate land, air, and sea customs checkpoints. National security authorities should further reform the current system to create a more integrated and secure system of customs control.

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