|Shipping containers Photo: James Davies|
DRUG lords see Australia as an easy market, confident that with just one in 20 shipping containers being X-rayed by customs their illicit goods will reach their destination: our suburban streets.
This is the stark warning of security experts who say the flood of drugs into Australia will be stemmed only if crime bosses have reason to fear their consignments, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year, will not make it past our ports.
Security and counter-terrorism expert Neil Fergus, who helped write the Wheeler review into airport security, said that at least one in four shipping containers needed to be screened if authorities were committed to stopping the flow of drugs and other illegal imports.
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He said it was worrying that customs only checked between 130,000 and 140,000 of the 2.6 million containers shipped into Australia each year.
"If you are a criminal cabal seeking to bring a large importation of narcotics into Australia, the maritime option is going to offer dramatically better prospects of success," Mr Fergus told The Sunday Age.
"But if there was a one in four chance of losing an expensive shipment, that could be enough to make a criminal cabal think twice about whether or not to send it to Australia."
Professor Clive Williams of the Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism, agreed that more frequent screening was needed but said any significant increase in the number of containers checked could prove a logistical nightmare because of the extra time and costs involved. Delays getting containers off the wharves if they had to be screened first would cause chaos, he said.
Most countries were only screening between 2% and 5% of containers and relied heavily on intelligence to pinpoint where drugs had been hidden in certain shipments.
In 2006-07, there were 140,539 containers X-rayed and 15,062 physically examined at the Australian border. Customs' target for 2008-09 is to X-ray at least 134,000 containers and examine 14,300.
A customs spokesman said the department electronically profiled information received on every sea consignment coming to Australia. "This profiling allows customs to assess the level of risk associated with each consignment. All high-risk cargo is then examined."
He said that while there had been an increase in the amount of drugs seized in the past five years, "customs recognises that criminal syndicates will constantly react to our efforts by attempting new methods of concealment and importation. So there is a need for customs to constantly remain vigilant against these shifts in criminal activity."
Last week's arrest of NSW Crime Commission investigator Mark Standen has brought maritime drug smuggling back into focus. Standen was allegedly involved in an international drug syndicate planning to import 600 kilograms of pseudoephedrine to make $120 million worth of the drug ice.
Dutch police discovered the pseudoephedrine was originally to be shipped from the Congo to Australia but was cancelled because of problems with a supplier. It was allegedly decided to send the precursor chemical from Pakistan, where a trial shipment with basmati rice was sent to Australia in a shipping container and arrived in October last year. A second rice container carrying pseudoephedrine was subsequently sent and arrived on April 25 but was intercepted by Federal Police. No trace of the chemical was found. It is rumoured the shipment was stolen en route by a rival gang.
In a separate case, drugs worth more than $11 million were found in Sydney on May 5 inside a shipping container carrying foot spas and massage chairs. A Victorian man, 40, and a Canadian woman, 32, were charged over the discovery of 27 kilograms of cocaine and 27 kilograms of methamphetamine (ice).
The big catches
Customs X-rays about 130,000 of the 2.6 million containers shipped to Australia per year.
Since 2002 (when the first container examination facility opened), customs has seized goods including:
190 kg of heroin
4019 kg of MDMA (ecstasy)
395 kg of crystal methylamphetamine (ice)
691 kg of cocaine
1629 kg of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
3200 litres of chemicals used to make amphetamines
About 233 million cigarettes
472 tonnes of tobacco
Over 31,000 bottles of alcohol
A network of 231 cameras covering the national waterfront is monitored 24 hours a day from a Melbourne office.