Tuesday 19 September 2017

Hollow shoes, fake drinks cans and child smugglers - Custom control's crazy year in airport

A Customs officer at Dublin Airport with a fake soft drinks can which has a screw off top with hidden compartment for drugs.
A Customs officer at Dublin Airport with a fake soft drinks can which has a screw off top with hidden compartment for drugs.
Customs officers seizured include this Snake Wine containing a Scorpion and baby Cobra Snake at Dublin Airport.
Customs officers seizured include these mens shoes with hidden compartments in the soles for drugs concealment at Dublin Airport.

Lauyra Lynott

DRUG dealers are hiding narcotics in cans of fizzy drink, hollowed-out shoes and stuffed toys in a bid to get their lethal cargo past customs officials.

In 2016, more than €1.5m worth of cocaine, €658,000 in cash and six million illegal cigarettes were seized at Dublin Airport.

Customs officials netted 22kg of cocaine as drug gangs used increasingly complex methods to get drugs through security.

In the past year officials have stopped pensioners and children who were being used as cocaine mules.

Customs officers seizured include these knucle dusters at Dublin Airport.
Customs officers seizured include these knucle dusters at Dublin Airport.

They have also found toys stuffed full of drugs and even a cobra and scorpion stuffed in a bottle of wine.

With up to 27 million passengers passing through the airport last year, the tight-knit staff of more than 70 officials need to think on their feet.

Joe Keane, who has three decades of experience across a range of customs fields, said the work is often instinctive.

"You become instinctive about people," Mr Keane said. "You come to a stage when you make a judgement on the spot and no one will be able to tell you why you made the call, it's instinct," he told the Herald.

Smugglers will try anything, according to customs officials. Some of the methods used to try and smuggle contraband can be crude, as criminals hide thousands of euros in hand luggage or store machetes in their suitcase.

Others are more inventive, as drugs have been found in toys, empty fizzy drink and hairspray cans, cavities in shoes or the hollowed-out pages of a book.

Customs officers seize cigarettes at Terminal 1 Arrivals Hall at Dublin Airport brought into the Country by this gentleman.
Customs officers seize cigarettes at Terminal 1 Arrivals Hall at Dublin Airport brought into the Country by this gentleman.

Ciaran Moulton, head of the customs enforcement unit, said: "We've seen it all. Drugs smuggled in wooden planks, bottles of detergent.

INTELLIGENCE

"If it can be smuggled, it will be. We've seen the most clever concealments, where people go to huge trouble and then sometimes you just see a cardboard box full of drugs, where they've gone to no bother at all," he said.

"Cannabis and cocaine are a big problem. Sometimes people go to Amsterdam and come back with a bit in their pocket and don't even think about it until our drugs dog goes over to them and says 'hello'.

"But, of course, there's the criminal element too. We deal with Cab and we're told who to watch out for. We may or may not have their photos but we do have information from Cab and the guards.

"If they are keeping an eye on a particular criminal and if he comes through the airport, we see who he's talking to and what he's up to and that might lead to other intelligence, new players that the gardai didn't know," he added.

"We also get calls from other airports telling us they suspect a passenger is carrying something and can we check on our end. We deal closely with Interpol and global crime agencies and border controls.

"We see hundreds of guys coming and going and we can spot shifty ones, thanks to profiling and this, combined with intelligence, helps us keep drugs off Irish streets."

In one case, customs officials stopped a man who was dressed in a designer suit and expensive shoes but after being questioned it transpired he had swallowed 49 pellets of cocaine.

"On that occasion we had intelligence. This man was convincing until we started questioning him," Paul, a young customs officer, said.

"But some people you do just spot for acting dodgy and we are tipped off from not only our intelligence sources, including gardai and foreign police and border services, but also the public.

"Another way we find out who are the up-and-coming gangsters and who's been in and out of court is via the press. We keep up-to-date with the news for sure."

Joe McBride, principal officer of Customs at the airport, said the key for staff was to always expect the unexpected.

"We've seen old women in their 80s and kids bringing in drugs, carrying them in their bags. You find everything, there's nothing that surprises you," he said.

HARMFUL

"For the smugglers who fear the packages of drugs they may be carrying within their bodies, could prove fatal, we have an option for them too."

The drugs toilet is a contraption that allows the smuggler to relieve themselves of any potentially harmful packages while also giving customs the chance to gather evidence.

While the surveillance in Dublin Airport is subtle, Customs officials are constantly monitoring people.

"We have tip-offs on someone behaving strangely throughout the airport," Paul said.

"We get calls from staff in the shops here. Then we get calls from the public, too. This is often how we pick smugglers up and even welfare tourists.

"If we get a tip-off we know to watch out for someone and if we see them coming and going we know they're coming in and out of Dublin to claim benefits and then we'll ask questions about criminality too if they happen to have someone pick them up outside in a brand-new BMW."

Another customs official, Ciaran, said cigarettes are also a very popular item for smugglers.

"People are coming home from abroad with packets and we get a lot of professional couriers too," he said.

"The only purpose of their visit is to smuggle in cigarettes - there's a lot of money in it because a pack of cigarettes is €11 now.

"We do see an increase in smuggling of certain items like cigarettes and alcohol if there's been a budgetary increase.

HEALTH

"But every time we seize a large amount we are helping Irish businesses and we save the exchequer millions of euro.

"You wouldn't believe the health side of all this, how bad some of these products are. Some cigarettes are poisonous and some alcohol is in fact filled with paint stripper and could prove fatal.

"There's a big health and monetary value to what we do," he said.

Herald

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