PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Brazil’s ports are becoming electronic fortresses designed to prevent the trafficking of weapons and drugs, as well as other illegal merchandise.
Marine cargo terminals up and down Brazil’s coast are receiving mega scanners capable of penetrating up to 30 centimeters of steel. The authorities hope the technology will help curb the drug trade, which in recent years has opened a new maritime route between Brazil and Africa.
“It used to take us six hours to release a container. With the mega scanner, we need only 10 seconds,” said Carlos Wilson Azevedo Albuquerque, the chief inspector at the Customs Office in the Port of Pecém in the state of Ceará.
The equipment scans all of the 10,000 containers that pass through the port monthly, Albuquerque said.
“Approximately 40% of the Brazilian fruits sent to Europe and the United States are shipped from Pecém. There’s no way to open and inspect every single case,” he added. “The scanner makes a big difference.”
Each mega scanner costs about US$3 million and processes up to 120 containers an hour.
In addition to Pecém, the new equipment is being used at the Port of Santos, which is the largest in South America, as well as at least five of the other 21 container terminals in Brazil.
The use of this technology meets Federal Revenue Service (RF) Ordinance 3,518, which requires the deployment of non-invasive inspection equipment at all customs inspection areas by the end of 2013.
The measure also meets the rule for exporting to the United States, which is the second-largest buyer of Brazilian products.
“After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the [U.S.] increased the restrictions on cargo,” said José Carlos de Araújo, the RF’s general coordinator of customs administration.
Araújo explained that the U.S. Congress approved a requirement in 2006 that all maritime containers undergo non-invasive inspection at the source. The requirement came into effect in July 2012, but the Brazilian government postponed implementation of the measure until January 2014.
“In addition to maintaining exports, the scanner allows us to more easily identify drugs hidden in cargo headed to any destination,” Araújo said.
Santos: 180 kilograms of cocaine hidden in coffee
On Sept. 19, 19 days after the high-penetration scanners entered into operation at the Port of Santos, about 180 kilograms of cocaine were found in a container filled with bags of coffee bound for Naples, Italy.
“Apparently, the drug traffickers used the ‘rip-on/rip-off’ technique, through which the drugs are introduced without the knowledge of the cargo’s owner,” the Federal Revenue Service said in a press release.
In Santos, the Customs Office has seized about four tons of cocaine worth more than R$107 million (US$48.6 million) since 2001.
From January to September, authorities seized nearly 700 kilograms of cocaine, up from 366 kilograms during the same period last year.
At the Port of Suape in the state of Pernambuco, sugar shipments headed to Africa are the top export, which alert authorities. With daily traffic of 1,000 containers, Suape was the first terminal to install the mega scanner, in early July.
“Our biggest bust came in 2011, when we found 530 kilograms of cocaine hidden in sacks of plaster powder headed to Nigeria,” said Carlos Eduardo da Costa Oliveira, chief inspector of the Customs Office at the Port of Suape. “Now, the criminals are going to have a much harder time because there are scanners wherever cargo is shipped.”
New trafficking routes
The arrival of the mega scanners coincides with the discovery of new maritime routes being used by drug traffickers. Nigeria is among the favored destinations.
In March, a report by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) revealed that the new channels being used to transport drugs are connecting the ports of Brazil with African countries.
“The drug traffickers [who used to use their own boats] seem to have changed their tactics, using containers to smuggle cocaine into Western Africa,” said the report by the INCB, an independent agency that monitors whether countries are respecting international drug control treaties.
Half of the cocaine seized on the coast of West Africa in 2011 was shipped from Brazil, according to the World Drug Report 2013 of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The drugs are alleged to have reached the Brazilian ports by land from Bolivia (54%), Peru (38%) and Colombia (7%).
This data also further demonstrates that Africa has strengthened its position as an alternative to the more heavily policed routes to Europe, according to the INCB.
“Telephone wiretaps that resulted in the arrest of Romanians, Serbians, Montenegrins, Filipinos and South Americans in 2012 have proven the existence of a new route between Brazil and Africa,” said Paranaguá Federal Police (PF) Chief Sérgio Luís Stinglin de Oliveira. “At a minimum, the mega scanners will inhibit or impede the actions of these gangs.”