With record drug seizures destined for other borders regularly hitting the headlines, Customs Director General Joseph Chetcuti believes the attention must now shift to the drugs that are actually coming into Malta.
“We suspect the seas are the most vulnerable channels, and we’ve already begun discussions to replicate the investment made at the Freeport to strategic points around Malta,” Chetcuti said explaining that the drugs entering Malta are mostly cannabis, followed by cocaine.
Malta’s customs office has seen record haul after record haul since 2017, with a mammoth 17 tonnes worth of drugs seized by officials last year alone. In an enlightening interview with Lovin Malta, Chetcuti puts that down to persistence, perseverance, and crucially investment.
“I remember the days when we would think we found the right container only for it to be empty.”
“We’ve invested in the most sophisticated technology and human resources. We’ve changed our modus operandi and have improved collaboration and coordination between law enforcement agencies in both Malta and abroad.”
“We are currently two steps ahead, but there could also be a moment when we are two steps behind.”
“It’s simply impossible to check everything” – Why is Malta being used as a transit point for the drug trade?
The drugs being seized at the Freeport, as Chetcuti points out, are all destined for either the European market or the North African market, leading to questions as to why exactly Malta is being used as a transit point for the drug trade.
Chetcuti explains this has more to do with Malta’s crucial geographical location in commercial trade. By providing a vital stop on the south between the western and eastern basin of the Mediterranean, Malta is one of the principal ports in the region.
He did note regional issues, such as organised crime in Southern Italy and the conflict in Libya, do contribute. This did not mean that it is solely a Mediterranean issue, with Chetcuti referencing much larger hauls on Europe’s northern border.
The sheer frequency of the drug hauls have caught people’s attention, with questions arising as to how much is actually passing through Malta.
While admitting that he could never know the figure, he did concede that no matter how much is caught “there’s always a chance you aren’t catching everything”.
“It’s not something we’re ashamed of. The Freeport is one of the busiest ports, and in a weekend sees 15,000 different containers. It’s simply impossible to check everything.”
Instead, the customs office works according to risk management, which uses several factors such as route, weight and source to target high-risk containers. Chetcuti is quick to praise the collaborative work being done to ensure the system works efficiently.
“Containers have to go through three or four main ports across the Mediterranean, which means there is a greater likelihood the drugs are found along their route.”
There is no indication that Maltese are involved
Questions have also been simmering as to whether Maltese people are at all involved with this illicit trade. Chetcuti doesn’t think so, stressing that there was “not the slightest indication that Maltese are involved”.
“It seems that with the two record cannabis hauls, there were organised crime rings involved that would have channelled the profits into other activities. When it comes to cocaine there are drug lords in South America and others in continental Europe… we are monitoring that situation and I can’t say any more.”
When it comes to the future and whether Malta’s tough stance would see perpetrators use other ports, Chetcuti feels there are two main possibilities.
The trend could remain the same just because of the sheer amount of drugs that pass through increases, or the route could change.
“If we just miss one of the 20 containers they send, they will still make a profit.”
So what happens once drugs are found?
While the hauls understandably make the headlines, little is actually known as to what happens to the drugs once they are discovered. Chetcuti explained:
“Customs are on the frontier. Once drugs are inside our borders than it falls under the Police’s remit. When a consignment is found, it is first tested, and if positive we immediately call the Police as it is now a scene of a crime.
“The Police inform the magistrate who in turn orders the inquiry. Forensic experts, scientists, and photographers are appointed to examine the haul and provide testimony in the inquiry. Everything is tested. Everything is photographed.
“If there is an arrangement, the evidence is exhibited and once the case finishes the drugs are destroyed in an incinerator. If there is no arraignment, then the case is closed by the magistrate and the drugs also get destroyed. In both cases, the same experts must test, weigh, and photograph the drugs before filming them be destroyed.”