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Drugs worth more than $1 billion have been seized from shipping containers since late 2002 even though customs inspected only a tiny fraction of the 3 million containers that arrive in Australia each year.
An investigation by The Sunday Age shows the seizures could be just the tip of an iceberg centred around drug trafficking networks able to avoid detection because of limited searches or rorting of the importation system.
Airport security is under intense scrutiny, although figures show that far more illicit drugs come to Australia by ship than by air cargo or hidden on passengers or air crew.
The Australian Customs Service admits it does not know how many illegal drugs are imported.
"Customs is unable to provide an estimate of the percentage of drug importations that are detected," it said. "The fight against drugs is an ongoing one."
But the drugs detected on the docks far outweigh airport seizures, for example the 8.3 kilograms of heroin the Bali nine were found with, or the 4.1 kilograms discovered in Schapelle Corby's luggage at Denpasar airport.
Four container X-ray facilities detected 185 kilograms of heroin, 1890 kilograms of ecstasy (MDMA), 348 kilograms of crystal methylamphetamine (ice), 750 kilograms of amphetamine-type stimulants, and 400 litres of safrole, for the production of amphetamines, up to last December.
A further 5 million ecstasy tablets weighing 1236 kilograms were found in April in a container of ceramic tiles. These busts do not include seizures by federal or state police.
"Airports are really for the small and desperate," according to Paddy Crumlin, of the Maritime Union of Australia. The bigger, more meticulous and better organised criminals used containers.
The actual amount of illegal drugs arriving at Australian ports is not known because, until recently, customs X-rayed only about 5 per cent of containers. The new target is 7.4 per cent.
But Mr Crumlin said X-rays did not always reveal drugs hidden in white goods. "If instead of having fibreglass insulation in a stove, you had heroin insulation, an X-ray would not pick that up," he said.
"There's tokenism involved in it. There doesn't seem to be any shortage of ecstasy or cocaine or heroin, from my reading."
In a statement, the Customs Service said Mr Crumlin's claims were completely false, and that the X-ray facilities were at the cutting edge of technology, with a maximum penetration capacity of 250 millimetres of steel.
But concerns about the efficacy of X-ray machines were raised in an audit report as recently as last December.
There are also concerns about theft and security checks of employees.
Staff with criminal records
Federal sources told The Sunday Age yesterday that 30 to 50 per cent of people working on the waterfront and in the maritime industry were suspected of having criminal records, although they stressed many might be minor offences.
Tim Blood, the managing director of P&O Ports, which handles 50 per cent of all containers in Australia, said containers had been stolen from the docks despite the security.
"It's not possible to do something like that without there being some sort of network and that's the concern," he said.
"We do have similar security problems to the airports."
The former managing-director of P&O Ports, Andrew Burgess, who is promoting a new X-ray technology that he claims would enable 100 per cent of containers to be scanned, has attacked government agencies as a "study in still-life".
But customs said an evaluation of Mr Burgess' proposal showed there were significant issues with the technology, and that the idea was not supported by industry.
The Sunday Age found that enforcement authorities had had a blind spot about maritime security until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks sparked a higher alert. In 1992-93 less than 1 per cent of containers were examined.
Several years later, a report by the Australasian Centre for Policing Research found that pressure on the Customs Service to facilitate passenger and trade movements meant "that the number of specific searches of people and goods remains low".
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says: "There's a relatively high level of aviation awareness in Australia, but this isn't so with maritime awareness."
Despite more container inspections and better intelligence, gaps remain in port security. The Federal Government's targets for the number of containers to be X-rayed were not being met until recently, and concerns exist about foreign shipping crews and the lack of scrutiny of empty containers.
A critical report by the Australian National Audit Office last December found that not one of the X-ray examination facilities in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or Fremantle met its target for the number of containers examined.
The audit office says that by last September, Australia's X-ray facilities had scanned 98,348 containers - almost 10,500 short of the target.
It found that customs was not physically unpacking all high-risk containers, as it was supposed to do.
Customs said that in the nine months to March this year it had exceeded its inspection targets, and more recently 92 per cent of high-priority containers were opened. This was an appropriate rate because the unopened priority-one containers had been cleared by X-ray.
Longer operating hours would boost the number of containers scanned from 80,000 to 100,000 each year.
It claimed significant success in its fight against drugs, pointing to a recent seizure of a large quantity of MDMA in Melbourne, and claiming partial credit for the current shortage of heroin.
"Customs does not claim to be able to stop every shipment into this country, but working with other border and law enforcement agencies have made significant inroads into the drug trafficking market," it said.
There are also concerns about the ability of foreign shipping crews to enter Australia without adequate checks. A review for the Australian Shipowners Association has warned that the system of checking foreign crew relies on the crew lists being accurate. If fake names did not trigger an alert when checked, seafarers were automatically granted a special purpose visa.
"Additionally, once the initial inspection of the ship is complete, crew are free to go ashore whenever they like. If they do not return, the system relies upon the ship's master to alert the authorities to the missing crew."
The findings echo a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which noted that 113 foreign seafarers jumped ship in Australia between July 2001 and April 2004.
A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister John Anderson said requirements for foreign crew had been tightened recently, with all crew now needing to present passports as well as seafarer identification.
New overseer considered
Mr Anderson is considering a new body to oversee security at the nation's airports and ports amid Federal Government concerns about a lack of security and police co-operation by the states to tackle drugs and organised crime.
Customs officials admitted during Senate hearings in February that 16 per cent of ships were failing to report details of their cargo 48 hours before arriving at an Australian port, the requirement under new laws.
Despite this and the fact that 8 per cent of cargo reports were not given to customs until after the vessel had arrived, there were no penalties for failing to report or reporting late.
Opposition homeland security spokesman Robert McClelland said the situation contrasted sharply with the United States, where ships were turned away in similar situations. "It is unacceptable that cargo ships potentially carrying weapons, drugs, dirty bombs, nuclear waste or other hazardous materials can come deep into Australia's ports before customs finds out what they are carrying, let alone intercepting them and preventing entry," he said.
"We should be insisting on 100 per cent reporting before entry."
Mr Anderson's spokesman said foreign ships would soon need to provide 96 hours' notice before berthing at Australian ports.
About 100,000 dock and maritime workers and operators are now having security checks by ASIO, police and immigration officials before being issued a new maritime security identification card.
The national system is due to start on October 1, and will be implemented over nine months. Workers and maritime staff at present do not undergo security checks unless conducted by their employers.
The Strategic Policy Institute says almost 700,000 empty containers are stored in ports each year waiting for space on ships returning to their port of origin.
"Very few of these empty containers are inspected - the combined figure for the two financial years 2002-03 and 2003-04 was around 190," it said.
Labor's Mr McClelland said: "Experience around the world shows these so-called empty containers can be used to smuggle narcotics, even people." But customs maintains that repeated checks have assessed empty containers as low risk. Stevedores were responsible for the security of cargo on wharves, including protection from theft and interference.
The Government announced in last month's budget a $47.5 million increase in maritime and port security to increase inspections of the 11,000 foreign ships that visit each year.
<<"Customs is unable to provide an estimate of the percentage of drug importations that are detected," it said. "The fight against drugs is an ongoing one.">>
Ongoing, and failing terribly all at the same time. If I were on the other side, I'd be kicking myself in the ass after seizing [insert high volume of drug here], only to realize I didn't even put a fraction of a dent on the market.
Manoa said: I need to stop spending all my money on plants and take up a cheaper hobby, like heroin.
Looking for Rauhocereus riosaniensis seeds or live specimen(s), me if you have any for trade