Patterns of drug trafficking and countermeasures:

Sections

ABSTRACT
Introduction
Development of a more cohesive national drug law enforcement strategy
Legislation
Current situation
The National Drugs Intelligence Unit: a case in point
The need to keep up with new developments in drug trafficking
The need to harmonize national drug legislation
Concluding remarks

Details

Author: B. PRICE
Pages: 51 to 59
Creation Date: 1992/01/01

Patterns of drug trafficking and countermeasures:

the personal view of a veteran

B. PRICE Co-ordinator, National Drugs Intelligence Unit, London

ABSTRACT

In the present paper, a law enforcement official with nearly 40 years of experience in combating drug trafficking provides insight that may prove useful to persons in other organizations and/or cultures. He examines, in particular, the development, at the national level, of drug control legislation, a drug law enforcement strategy and a drug intelligence unit.

Introduction

Law enforcement authorities, particularly investigators, are often required to make strategic and tactical alterations to comply with new or amended legislation. Technical advances have led to changes in evidence-gathering and other techniques. Because of the increased resourcefulness and sophistication of organized crime groups, law enforcement tactics need to be constantly reviewed. Adjustments of style and technique are therefore a regular feature of law enforcement activity, but there has probably never been a period that can compare with the last five or six years, in which rapid and sometimes dramatic changes have occurred. Adjustments have been made mostly to deal with the evils of drug trafficking, an issue that has drawn attention to other activities of major organized crime groups. In the present article, a law enforcement official with nearly 40 years of experience, largely in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, briefly reviews those adjustments.

The most recent period of rapid change may have given a distorted picture of the drug trafficking scene. New conventions, agreements, treaties and laws suggest that tremendous progress has been made, at least on paper. But what progress has been made in practice, in terms of law enforcement action? Are the major criminals still operating with relative ease? Are there still loopholes or havens for them? The purpose of the present article is to encourage law enforcement officials to raise such questions about the situation in their countries.

In the United Kingdom, as in most other democracies, the public must debate on whether to accept any proposed legislative changes, particularly those that would introduce new constraints on citizens. That makes it easier for the police and the other authorities concerned to enforce such changes once they have been adopted.

Such changes are usually directed at a social problem that the police or other law enforcement authorities are unable to make progress in resolving because of a lack of legal authority.

Public debate and the passage of legislation through Parliament can take time, much to the frustration of those trying to cope with the problem.

Law enforcement authorities are generally provided with an opportunity to assess resource consequences, to identify redeployment options, to consider additional training requirements or perhaps the need for a completely new range of skills not currently available; however, such opportunities have not been available in the United Kingdom for some time.

Development of a more cohesive national drug law enforcement strategy

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the strategy in the United Kingdom to deal with fast developments in drug trafficking carried out by organized crime groups was fragmented. That is not surprising considering that there are 43 police forces in England and Wales, 8 in Scotland and 1 in Northern Ireland, each with territorial responsibility for matters of law and order and most with their own drug squads.

At that time, major criminals and their organizations began getting involved in drug trafficking operations. The criminals were normally the targets of regional crime squads, whose members were dedicated and highly trained detectives who were on secondment from their own forces and who had been brought together to tackle major crime transcending police area boundaries.

The inevitable consequence of the haphazard, fragmented strategy was that scarce resources were wasted by duplicated efforts. For example, one agency, operating in isolation, would target and arrest an individual on the periphery of a large criminal organization under investigation by another agency. As a result, the already soured relations between the investigating teams of the agencies involved would deteriorate even further.

By the early 1980s, several initiatives were under way to improve the situation in the United Kingdom. One such initiative, a working group set up under the aegis of the Association of Chief Police Officers, produced a list of powerful and well-thought-out recommendations, some of which were aimed at bringing about significant changes in the attitude of law enforcement personnel and in legislation dealing with banking secrecy.

In essence, the principal recommendations were as follows:

  1. There should be legislation to enable financial inquiries to be conducted into drug traffickers' assets, which should be seized and, within certain constraints, forfeited if convicted drug traffickers cannot establish legitimate acquisition;

  2. Each regional crime squad should be expanded to include a drug wing;

  3. The police service should adopt a tiered strategy against illicit trafficking and drug abuse, and guidelines should be developed with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise on conducting joint efforts;

  4. A national drug intelligence unit should be created to provide a single database of drug trafficking information and a comprehensive intelligence service for both police and customs investigative agencies;

  5. Liaison officers should be posted in selected countries to facilitate investigations based in the United Kingdom and to collect information from agencies in their host countries that might be of assistance to efforts in the United Kingdom aimed at reducing the drug problem.

The majority of the recommendations were accepted by the Home Secretary and other authorities. By the mid-1980s, a more cohesive strategy was emerging.

In simple terms, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise was given the responsibility of preventing the importation of illicit substances and of investigating instances where such substances had not been detected upon entering the country. The drug wings of the regional crime squads were given the responsibility of tackling major criminal organizations engaged in drug trafficking, of disrupting national and regional networks distributing illicit substances and of dismantling illicit laboratories manufacturing synthetic drugs, such as amphetamine. The drug wings, created in 1986, produced a phased increase of some 300 police officers dedicated to fighting illicit trafficking and drug abuse. Their number was subsequently increased by 150.

The National Drugs Intelligence Unit was created in 1985. It was staffed by police, customs officers and civilians. One of the primary functions given to it was to facilitate coordination between the various investigative agencies by providing intelligence. The first police and customs drug liaison officers were posted abroad and the number of memoranda of understanding between Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and its foreign counterparts increased considerably.

Legislation

At about that time, legal drafters in the United Kingdom were putting the finishing touches on legislation that would make it possible to strip drug traffickers of their ill-gotten gains.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the primary anti-drug law in the United Kingdom, makes each of the following an offence:

  1. Illegal possession of controlled substances (i.e. in amounts likely to be for personal use);

  2. Illegal supply of controlled substances;

  3. Illegal possession of controlled substances with intent to supply.

The 1971 Act provides a list of the substances subject to control, which can be amended when necessary without recourse to new legislation. Five schedules determine how closely the substances will be controlled. The substances are divided into three classes, which determine the maximum penalties available to a court (see table below).

The 1971 Act also contains a provision enabling a court to order the forfeiture or destruction of anything shown to the satisfaction of the court to relate to the offence. The difficulties of satisfactorily establishing a relation to the offence have blunted the edge of that part of the law; furthermore, if the assets have been transferred to a third person they were beyond the reach of the court.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: maximum penalties for illegal possession of or trafficking in controlled substances

 

Possession

Trafficking

 

Summary conviction

Conviction on indictment

Summary conviction

Conviction on indictment

Type of substance

Imprison-ment (months)

Fine (pounds sterling)

Imprison-ment (years)

Fine (pounds sterling)

Imprison-ment (months)

Fine (pounds sterling)

Imprison-ment (years)

Fine (pounds sterling)

Class A substances
               
(more harmful substances, e.g. heroin and cocaine)
6 2000 7
a
6 2000
b
a
Class B substances
               
(less harmful substances, e.g. cannabis reisin)
3 500 5
a
6 2000 14
a
Class C substances
               
(weaker stimulants, e.g. benzodiazepine tranquillizers)
3 200 2
a
3 500 5
a

aUnlimited.

bLife imprisonment.

The Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 is the main act of legislation from which customs authorities draw their authority to interdict the import and export of illicit substances. Although it contains provisions for impounding vehicles, vessels, aircraft or other means of transport used to smuggle illicit substances, together with any goods packed with or wrapped round the forbidden substances to assist concealment, it does not enable law enforcement authorities to strike at the financial core of criminal organizations engaged in drug trafficking.

The Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, which came into force in January 1987, has radically altered the situation. Police and customs officers, having reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has carried out or has benefited from drug trafficking activity, can apply, ex parte, to a Crown Court judge for an order requiring the production of specified material of substantial benefit to the investigation. If the production order is not complied with, a warrant can be granted to search for and seize such material. The warrant can be applied for while a production order is being sought if there are grounds for believing that the order is unlikely to be complied with immediately. Once a production order or warrant has been granted, any person who knows of the investigation and makes a disclosure that is likely to prejudice the investigation commits an offence carrying a maximum penalty of five years.

The 1986 Act also makes it an offence for any person knowing or suspecting that funds, property or investments are assets derived from drug trafficking to assist another person in retaining or controlling those assets. It has all but demolished some old obstacles to investigators, such as banking secrecy and confidentiality between lawyer and client. It provides protection for individuals or institutions that suspect that assets may have been derived from drug trafficking, enabling them to disclose such suspicions to police without laying themselves open to action such as breach of contract, a provision that has been used often, particularly by responsible financial institutions.

The legislation described thus far applies mostly to pre-arrest law enforcement measures. Some provisions that become available following the commencement of proceedings are aimed at the financial power base of major drug traffickers. The commencement of proceedings normally occurs at the time that a person is arrested and is charged with a drug trafficking offence, but if his or her whereabouts are unknown or he or she is beyond the immediate reach of the British authorities, proceedings can commence upon applying for a warrant for his or her arrest. At that point the prosecutor may apply to the High Court for a restraining order to freeze all realizable property held by the accused person; it does not have to be in the possession of the accused. An official, known as the receiver, may be appointed by the High Court to take possession of, manage or otherwise deal with restrained property.

Following a person's conviction for a drug trafficking offence and prior to sentencing, the Crown Court judge must determine the extent to which the convicted person has derived benefit from drug trafficking. The Court may assume that any asset held by the convicted person during the previous six years has been derived from drug trafficking and the burden of proving otherwise is shifted to the convicted person.

The investigating officer is required to prepare a statement identifying the legitimate income of the convicted person, concealed income that could be the result of current or previous drug trafficking activity, and a list of all realizable assets.

A confiscation order made by a Crown Court is enforced by a lower court, the magistrates court that committed the person in question for trial by the higher court. Disobeying a confiscation order is punishable by additional terms of imprisonment on a sliding scale. There is also legislation on bilateral agreements with other States, enabling reciprocal investigation, restraint and enforcement of confiscation orders, irrespective of the locus of the offence or offences from which they are derived. Such confiscation agreements are negotiated with jurisdictions having compatible confiscation legislation.

Current situation

On the surface it would appear that the United Kingdom is in a good position. It has a solidly structured national drug law enforcement strategy, some increase in resources for law enforcement authorities, powerful anti-drug legislation, an opportunity to coordinate efforts by the primary law enforcement agencies, an expanding network of overseas liaison officers capable of facilitating and promoting bilateral or multilateral investigations, and the political commitment to support national and international measures to reduce the drug abuse problem, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Events beyond the United Kingdom are also encouraging. The development of the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988 [ 1] proceeded well. At frequently held ministerial-level meetings, Governments have been committing themselves to an all-out assault on various aspects of the drug problem. The International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO/Interpol) has kept a higher profile in this area of criminality, increasing its information exchange facility, as well as focusing on specific aspects of the drug problem and promoting the sharing of successful practices. Such efforts have complemented the valuable meetings of Heads of National Drug Law Enforcement Agencies (HONLEA), organized by the United Nations International Drug Control Programme.

Nearer to home, European institutions, such as the European Economic Community and the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe have been developing strategies to deal with aspects of the problem that range from treatment and rehabilitation of drug-dependent persons to demand reduction, disruption of supply, and provision of aid to major producer and transit countries.

With all this activity, a reduction in the levels of abuse would be expected. That is not the case in the United Kingdom, and there are few places in Europe that could make such a claim.

The emergence of the new democracies in Europe has added a new dimension to the drug problem. Drug trafficking organizations will use the greater freedom of choice for the inhabitants of those countries to expand not only their transit routes but also their markets. The situation is certain to become more difficult.

Levels of abuse are difficult to determine with any accuracy. A variety of indicators are used in the United Kingdom, such as the number and volume of seizures, purity levels, street prices, the number of drug-dependent persons notified to the Home Office, the number of drug-related deaths, intelligence on the availability of illicit drugs at street level, and information from street agencies where drug users or their families seek help.

The best that can be said is that the escalation of abuse of the more harmful substances has slowed down and that the abuse of heroin may have even peaked. There may also be some comfort in the fact that the age of newly notified drug-dependent persons is rising. But those working in this area of human behaviour know that drug-taking fashions can change rapidly and unexpectedly.

In the absence of any major improvement in the situation, law enforcement officials would be right to question the current strategy. But the author's firm advice would be not to make any radical changes. The full benefits of the changes highlighted above have not been felt.

The National Drugs Intelligence Unit: a case in point

It took the National Drugs Intelligence Unit three years to deliver the type of service for which it was created. The main investigative agencies had to be persuaded to make a greater investment in it. It took time to prime the intelligence pump, but once it was primed, investigators in the field began to use the service. The Unit now plays a pivotal role in all major investigations.

The reduction of conflict, the elimination of duplicated effort and the greatly increased number of joint operations between the differing agencies are all evidence of success, but much more can be achieved.

The most recent period of legislative change has been one of discovery and learning, rather than one of dramatic impact. Although the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 has achieved measurable results, there is still much room for improvement. First, the police and customs authorities underestimated the resources and the level of training that would be necessary to implement many legislative provisions. The speed at which legislation moved on to the statute book may have resulted in the services being caught unprepared, but it is possible that even with more time there would have been a shortfall of skills. Financial investigations, now numbering approximately 7,000 per year, are time-consuming and they require a sound understanding of banking, money markets and the many methods used to launder money. Even now the investigative agencies are struggling to keep up. In consequence, the financial powerbases of convicted individuals and their organizations have not always been destroyed.

Secondly, it was not realized that, to obtain maximum advantage from the powers of confiscation, financial inquiries needed to be started almost at the same time that a decision was made to target a criminal or an organization involved in drug trafficking. Some progress has been made in that area, as indicated by the following figures: from their introduction in January 1987 to December 1989, confiscation orders were made to the value of 14.7 million pounds sterling; the figure for 1990 alone was 12.4 million. The amount that has been netted, however, falls well short of the above figures. Exact amounts are not available, but the shortfall has revealed a need for a review of this part of the arrangement. Because it takes time to fulfil orders from a court, there will always be a gap. But the magistrates' courts responsible for realizing those assets were initially ill-prepared for the task; in consequence, some convicted drug traffickers managed to elude the extra penalties.

Disclosures of suspicious financial transactions are reported to the National Drugs Intelligence Unit. From that central location, inquiries are passed to the appropriate agency, together with other information available within the Unit.

Certain financial institutions in the United Kingdom, such as the main domestic banks, have used such legislation extensively from the outset. Other financial institutions, such as foreign banks, insurance companies and building societies, are also recognizing their responsibilities under the law.

In 1986, its first year of operation, the Unit handled 501 disclosures; in 1991, the figure exceeded 4,000. Some disclosures make significant contributions to ongoing investigations; others, fewer in number, trigger off successful inquiries, leading to conviction and seizure of assets.

The need to keep up with new developments in drug trafficking

Drug traffickers swiftly change their financial arrangements or money- laundering techniques. Keeping up with those changes is an important part of curbing profits derived from drug trafficking.

For example, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise authorities were regularly uncovering large amounts of currency that was being removed from the United Kingdom by departing passengers, especially those destined for mainland Europe. Monetary exchange regulations did not prohibit such action by passengers, even though in many cases it was strongly suspected that the money involved was from the sale of illicit drugs in the United Kingdom or was being conveyed abroad to purchase such drugs. The British Government was quick to react. The Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990 plugged the gap, making it possible for the authorities, under certain circumstances, to retain such currency for a limited period while inquiries were being made.

New money-laundering techniques must be dealt with as they emerge. The objective must always be to make hard currency an embarrassment to drug traffickers.

The need to harmonize national drug legislation

The 1988 Convention is an impressive legal instrument, identifying areas where joint action and cooperation could greatly improve the effectiveness of international law enforcement efforts. Every article of the Convention is designed to facilitate international cooperation. States that have ratified the Convention must introduce domestic legislation to enable them to conform to its articles.

Mutual legal assistance treaties contain similar provisions for cooperation. At least 21 States have signed such treaties with the United Kingdom and there are many more that are about to be signed.

Despite such treaties and the 1988 Convention, however, investigations in the United Kingdom are often frustrated when it becomes necessary to seek assistance from law enforcement agencies outside of the country, even within Europe. Some criminal groups organize their operations to take advantage of the situation. Greater harmonization of national drug legislation would contribute much to remedying the situation.

Concluding remarks

Great progress has been made in efforts to fight drug trafficking. The current level of international cooperation would have been unimaginable seven or eight years ago. Such progress has made many drug law enforcement officials impatient. They would like to remove the remaining obstacles so that they can maximize the advantages provided by new anti-drug laws.

Legislation is valueless if the level of skills and resources available prevent its implementation. Changes in the law may not be sufficient when it comes to international cooperation; procedural changes may be necessary. For example, if law enforcement authorities require judicial or other approval to participate in an international operation, decision makers must be available round the clock. Arrangements for authorizing controlled delivery, a highly effective law enforcement technique, should be reviewed. Such procedural changes should be introduced as soon as possible.

Evidence collected in one jurisdiction in criminal proceedings is frequently used in another. An attempt should be made to establish common standards of acquiring, preserving and presenting such evidence.

There should be more sharing of know-how and technical information. Information on new methods being deployed by drug traffickers should be disseminated more rapidly.

Some developing countries are particularly vulnerable to drug trafficking, requiring help in a number of areas, ranging from detecting offences to maintaining security following the arrest of major drug traffickers, whose considerable resources are sometimes used to obstruct justice.

The strategy of the United Kingdom, which more or less mirrors the strategies of most other developed countries, is the right one. Law enforcement agencies are doing a much better job than they give themselves credit for. They need time to sharpen up their performance within the national strategy and to modify systems to aid international cooperation.

Reference

01

United Nations publication, Sales No. E.91.XI.6.