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UNODC delivers training to Customs Officers in intelligence handling, risk assessment and passenger profiling in Lao PDR

Vientiane, Lao PDR (17 February 2020)
- Officers from Lao Customs attended a week-long training seminar followed by live operational exercises at Wattay International Airport and Friendship Bridge One, Vientiane facilitated by UNODC's regional AML/CFT advisor, Mr. Chris Batt and UK Customs advisor, Mr. Robert Housley-Jeive. The aim of the collaboration between UNODC and Lao Customs was to provide insight on risk analysis, intelligence gathering and passenger profiling as they relate to border protection and combating transnational organized crime.

The workshop started off with opening remarks from the Deputy Director of Lao Customs, Mr. Vongkhamheng Vongthacvhak and the British Ambassador, His Excellency Mr. John Pearson. Over the last two years, the United Kingdom has provided support to the Government of Lao PDR in the area of cross border security working with UNODC to provide capacity-building and mentoring to tackle the smuggling of illegal wildlife, bulk cash and other illicit goods. In attendance, were members of the Customs Department of varying ranks and positions based at Wattay International Airport and Friendship Bridge 1 in Vientiane. Both Mr. Batt and Mr. Housley-Jeive facilitated training sessions that included risk identification and assessment, intelligence gathering and passenger profiling techniques. The floor was open for cross-collaboration and open discussion amongst the Customs officers who were encouraged to share their experiences with one another as well as ask questions to the experts in providing further clarification and insights on effective customs operations.

The criminality at the heart of the training included the trafficking of illicit products like drugs and wildlife, human trafficking and the smuggling of bulk cash linked to money laundering. With Lao PDR increasingly becoming a transit country for many transnational organized crimes, it is paramount for front-line agencies like Customs to have the capacity to adequately combat cross border crime and intercept illegal commodities. Towards the end of the seminar, the Customs Officers had the opportunity to formulate an operational plan for a day of action on the front lines of the international airport and the land border crossing. The aim of the day of action was to showcase the capabilities of the Customs Officers as they conducted risk assessments, carried out passenger profiling and targeted potential cash couriers and smugglers.

On Friday February 21st, the UNODC experts were invited to observe the live operation of the Customs Officers at the Wattay International Airport who focussed on three foreign flights inbound to Vientiane from Viet Nam and Thailand and three outbound flights to Cambodia and Thailand. The selection of these flights was made using information on the trends and patterns of previous interdictions and following risk assessments. Similarly, on Monday February 24th, the UNODC were invited to witness the operation at Friendship Bridge 1 that marks the border crossing between Lao PDR and Thailand. On both occasions, the theoretical aspects of the workshops were highlighted as the officers utilized techniques outlined by the UNODC advisors to screen suspicious behaviours, luggage, and people as they entered through the airport and land crossing.

At both the airport and bridge crossing, several travelers were detected breaching Customs regulations while attempting to avoid tax duty on a wide range of commodities including cosmetics, tobacco and alcohol. At the Friendship Bridge, one individual was detected attempting to smuggle a Drone into Laos and another profiled and identified for further intelligence development due to the suspicious circumstances surrounding his arrival in Laos. While nothing of a serious criminal nature was detected during the one-day operations such as bulk criminal cash, endangered animal parts or drugs, the detections that were made demonstrated that lessons learnt in the initial classroom-based part of the project had paid off.

At the conclusion of the week-long training, the UNODC advisors and Customs officers from the airport and the bridge crossing reconvened to discuss the successes and challenges of their operations and the insights that had been shared. Conversations on how to move forward and build on the experiences took place with advice given on how to repeat similar operations in the future with short term additional staff and utilizing the various intelligence sources coming on stream such as Advanced Passenger Information and Passenger Name Records.

In November 2020, Lao PDR will undergo its latest Financial Action Task Force (FATF) mutual evaluation on money laundering and terrorist financing (AML/CFT) when international assessors will visit the country for two weeks to measure compliance against the 40 FATF AML/CFT recommendations. These recommendations include a focus on cross border security and the ability of Customs to prevent the flow of illicit funds. For Lao PDR to be successful in this assessment it will be essential for Lao Customs to demonstrate a high level of effectiveness in combatting bulk cash smuggling and the smuggling of other illicit goods. The training and experiences provided by the UNODC during this project will have gone some way in achieving those objectives.