Illicit Activities and the Maritime Domain
Examining convergent threats and the search for solutions
The Current Operating Environment
Illicit activities perpetuated by global transnational criminal organizations are some of the gravest threats we face from a national security perspective. Not only do they undermine the rule of law, exploit vulnerable populations and further conflict and instability around the globe, they depend on and exploit the same systems that facilitate licit global commerce. No port is immune to illicit activity, but the ports that experience the highest amounts are those that are major continental access points with ease of access to road and rail transportation infrastructure. Ports such as Antwerp, Belgium, Long Beach, California, Santos, Brazil and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam see illicit goods in the billions of dollars range pass through them annually. These goods include oil, illicit wildlife items, counterfeit luxury goods and pharmaceuticals, drugs, cigarettes, weapons and people. This activity is often times facilitated by corrupt customs and port officials with access to vessel and cargo manifests.
While the very fragmented nature of transnational criminal organizations make illicit commerce more difficult to combat, the results of concentrated, synchronized degradation efforts by law enforcement in partnership with port authorities and the private sector, make it exceedingly more possible. Recognizing the fact that logistics and transportation is a critical enabler of any illicit crime, the first element of any strategy must be education. Port Authorities must be kept up to date on current and emerging threats within their region, along with recognizable indicators of illicit activity. A centerpiece of this training should be information sharing and the need to formulate mechanisms for information to flow from the dock hand or warehouse personnel, to the port operations fusion center, the port director and then onward to local, state and federal law enforcement. Similarly, law enforcement should share downwards and when necessary conduct periodic information exchanges with port authority personnel in addition to any current sharing of tactical and strategic threat intelligence. Transnational criminal organizations are highly flexible, adapting to stress and changes almost instantaneously. Ports and law enforcement must counter this with their own immediate changes or risk being outmaneuvered. Lastly, the private sector has a huge role to play in any overall collaborative security effort. From data solutions to drone and scanning technology, the innovation which private enterprises can bring to bear are indispensable in this fight. Unfortunately, as long as there is a demand for illicit goods, the dependence on licit commerce to move these goods will continue to plague every country in the world. Partnerships, education and information sharing will be three mechanisms through which to build viable strategies to combat global illicit maritime commerce well into the future.