Customs: Malta’s most dynamic department

Well, what a year! 

At least that is what we would imagine the Customs Department screaming out, given several record-breaking seizures of illicit drugs and undeclared cash and goods.  

Customs Head Joseph Chetcuti told that the Department’s most notable seizure this year is without a shred of a doubt the 740kg of cocaine intercepted in June at the Malta Freeport. Due to the substance’s high purity, its estimated street value reaches €100,000,000. 

Since 2015, in its plethora of cases where it detected illicit activities, Malta Customs has also seized:

  • nearly 19 tonnes (18,910kgs), of drugs, worth €350 million;
  • 225 million hallucinating tablets destined to war zones, worth circa €1.2 billion;
  • millions of counterfeit goods, worth over €300 million;
  • 200 million cigarettes and 7,000 kgs of tobacco, worth more than €50 million;
  • four containers carrying stolen vehicles;
  • five containers carrying fireworks, with an estimated value of €1.7 million;
  • two containers carrying €926 million in paper currency, and
  • twenty-three containers carrying boats, intended for human trafficking.

Chetcuti also explained how the recent surge of undeclared cash, alcohol and drugs is “due to a change in strategy, where Customs moved to a risk-based approach. This approach has proved fruitful for the customs teams, with more accurate checks in all areas of their work, including the Anti Money Laundering Team”. This particular team was introduced back in 2018 and is currently adding recruits to continue to work closely with the recently established Canine Unit, the Enforcement Unit and the Customs Intelligence Services. Chetcuti also confirmed that the section has increased its cooperation with the Police Force’s AML and Counter-Terrorism Financing Units, and the FIAU. 

This includes a new system through which information is shared electronically and in real-time with the FIAU and the Police Force to provide key figures and trends about high-risk individuals, countries or monitored jurisdictions. This also complements the numerous memoranda of understanding the Department has entered with the Maltese Security Services, the Asset Recovery Bureau, the Sanctions Monitoring Board, the Commerce Department and the Central Bank, and Transport Malta. 

Information is shared electronically and in real-time with the FIAU and the

Police Force.

“In this spirit of collaboration between law enforcement agencies, the Customs Department’s canine teams, specialised in detecting concealment of cash, are at times seconded to the Police when searches for cash are carried out at private residences and other remote places”, Chetcuti explains.

Asked about the current ‘market’ for smuggled goods, even within the context of a pandemic, the Customs Head first pointed out issues relating to the basic principle of supply and demand. “As long as there is a demand for such goods, there will be someone ready to provide the supply. No matter how much authorities up their guard and no matter how many deterrent measures are introduced, there will always be those who will strive to find ways how to infringe the law. We are talking about commodities that attract international crime groups, which are well organised and who come out with different modus operandi the moment they are cornered. This means that ours is an ongoing struggle, to which we must stubbornly react firmly and audaciously”. 

He also explained how the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the entire Department to reshape its structures, align its modus operandi and reinforce its resources to mitigate new risks. “What is often overlooked is the fact that the dire impact of COVID was worsened by illicitly traded goods, such as, fraudulent personal protective equipment”, Chetcuti adds. “Transnational criminal organisations and global terror groups use illicit trade to facilitate crimes in local communities, disrupting civil society and cultivating corruption. To this effect, the pandemic was a new business opportunity to finance their iniquitous activities. Criminals have been quick to capitalise on these opportunities, perpetuating illicit activity when governments, industry and the general public are otherwise alienated and most vulnerable”.

In other cases, the pandemic has constrained illicit activities of organised criminal networks. Groups have used the global crisis to supply markets with illicit services and products in high demand, which also include standard and falsified face masks, disinfectants and medicines all associated with Coronavirus. 

Groups have used the global crisis to supply markets with illicit services and products in high demand, such as face masks.

“Against this background, Malta’s Customs Department took on board the proposals issued by the European Commission in March 2020, applying certain flexibility in the application of customs provisions related to the customs decision-making process, customs procedures and customs formalities. Additionally, given the Commission’s Implementing Regulations, making the exportation of COVID-19 vaccines as well as active substances subject to the production of an export licence, the local Customs administration created the necessary risk profiles in its risk profiling system”. This particular procedure means that the above phenomenon has been and is being tackled on a European Level through the raising of profiles targeting suspected goods through the sharing of information between member states, the Commission and OLAF. 

“Over the last eighteen months, there has been a rise in fake COVID related items, and, although Malta has not been a destination for this paraphernalia, we have identified such items on route to other countries”, the Customs Head said.

As the world starts to move away from COVID-19, other realities such as Brexit must be adhered to. Joe Chetcuti told this website that the Department was prepared in terms of Brexit procedures and the additional human resources it needed. “One should appreciate that, while Customs is generally perceived as an enforcement agency at the border, it is more of a legitimate trade facilitator. Therefore, the focal challenge remains the development of an efficient strategy intended to meet market trends”, Chetcuti added. 

Going forward, Malta Customs will also need to commit to ambitious new digital technology projects such as AI, Big Data and Blockchain across the board. This, Chetcuti tells us, is nevertheless challenging, especially given the large upfront costs associated with IT development and infrastructures, and their complexity. “While digital-based solutions will allow for the identification of criminal activities, they are not enough to address certain issues. Policy actions also need to be implemented in parallel. Such initiatives include cultural change within Customs Department, increasing sanctions where necessary and raising public awareness”. 

Malta Customs will commit to ambitious new digital technology projects such as AI, Big Data and Blockchain.

One should note that the Customs Department is the first line of defence in the fight against cross border illicit trade. Given Malta’s unique geographical position, set in between the European and North African borders, actions need to be taken to tackle illicit activities. When anyone enters Malta, the first authorities one encounters are the immigration and customs officials, who are in charge of passenger movements. “Goods generally follow the same path, with the slight difference that they are not overseen by immigration officials. The common factor here is Customs, which essentially supervises the movement of goods in and out of a country. This line of action means that Customs is the main competent authority for cross-border movement of goods”. 

While one may associate such operations with national interests, Chetcuti highlights how Malta, being a member of the European Union, as well as a signatory to various treaties and conventions, has the added responsibility of monitoring its borders since they serve as the external borders of the EU. “With the Maltese Islands being strategically situated in the middle of the Mediterranean, it is important for the visibility aspect of enforcement and vigilance to be given prominence. Thus, Malta Customs propagates its equipment inventory together with its intelligence capacity both in terms of human resources and IT-wise to provide a deterrent shield against the criminal world”. 

Other than that, the Department is also currently enhancing its capabilities through ensuring stricter penalties and promoting more effective controls at the border, to name a few. “To tackle illicit activities, a robust intelligence service and risk understanding are required”, the Customs Head concludes, adding that it is equally imperative to have an effective information sharing system in place with other law enforcement agencies. “Against this background, since Customs generates loads of data not available to other authorities, it is in an ideal position to conduct a risk analysis. This means that the ongoing development of Risk Analysis IT software is an essential element to abide with its obligations”.  

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