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Image Banner: Crime in a box: Ports crack down on trafficking of arms, drugs and human beings

Video: Customs officers in Antwerp, Belgium, remove 43 kilos of cocaine from a container that originated in Ecuador, after a tip-off from port authorities in Guayaquil, participants in the UNODC-WCO Container Control Programme. 2009.

An estimated 420 million containers of cargo are shipped around the world every year virtually uninspected – allowing shipments of weapons, narcotics, and other illegal goods to enter countries undetected. A UN programme to beef up port control measures in developing countries gained momentum in 2008, with more countries signing on in Latin America and additional funding secured for anti-trafficking efforts in key countries such as Afghanistan and Iran.


The Story

The use of freight containers to smuggle explosives, drugs and other contraband goods has been a cause of increasing concern, especially for developing countries that lack the capacity to set-up effective trade security and inspection mechanisms at their ports and borders.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has launched a Container Control Programme (CCP) that aims to help governments improve law enforcement capacity to  prevent drug trafficking and other illicit activity, as well as facilitate legitimate trade. The programme provides training to assist port authorities in identifying and inspecting high-risk freight containers and improving security in the ports. The programme is operational in Ecuador, Ghana, Pakistan, Senegal, Turkmenistan and, most recently, Panama, a global hub for the transport of freight containers.

Under the programme, joint operations are conducted between enforcement authorities at ports of origin, transit and destination. The programme also promotes partnerships among law enforcement agencies to develop closer cooperation, intelligence and information exchange mechanisms, as well as links to the business community to encourage trade. To assist in counter-terrorism efforts, the Container Control Programme utilizes experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who provide training to improve strategies for detection and response to illicit trafficking of nuclear material.

A Container Control project launched in Pakistan in 2008, established port inspection teams in the seaports of Karachi and Port Qasim. Training is set to begin in the summer of 2009 for seven inland container terminals, or dry ports, which are linked to seaports in the national transport network.

UNODC has secured funding to launch the Container Control Programme in Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in late 2009. Part of a larger, region-wide UNODC strategy to strengthen border control between Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, the programme also aims to boost counter-terrorism efforts in the region.
In Latin America, impressive seizures of illicit shipments in Ecuador during the pilot phase of the Container Control Programme – including nine tons of shark fins, 20,000 kg of acetic acid (a precursor chemical used in the manufacture of illicit narcotic drugs), and 4 million counterfeit cigarettes – have attracted the interest of other countries. UNODC is now negotiating agreements with Costa Rica. Brazil also has expressed an interest in participating in the programme.

The Context

  • According to UNODC, more than 420 million sea containers move around the globe every year, transporting 90 per cent of the world’s cargo. Seaports can process from several hundred to 50,000 containers daily.
  • The joint UNODC-World Customs Organization (WCO) Container Control Programme launched its first projects in 2005 in the ports of Guayaquil, Ecuador, and Dakar, Senegal. Ghana and Pakistan were added in 2006.  These ports were chosen because they are major hubs for maritime shipments of cocaine from Latin America, opiates from Afghanistan and heroin from South-East Asia.
  • Teams at the Karachi port in 2008 intercepted several shipments carrying illicit chemicals, including 14,000 kg of acetic anhydride, a precursor substance used in the production of heroin, and 4,500 kg of acetyl chloride, a chemical used to convert morphine into heroin. Officers also seized about 8 tons of marijuana.
  • Items seized in Ecuador during the pilot phase (2005-2008) of the Container Control Programme included contraband electrical items, whiskey and vodka, valued at US$ 1.5 million.
  • In Port Tema, Ghana, a month after completing training, officers intercepted three stolen luxury cars in containers coming from Spain, which were declared as personal effects.
  • There were 122 seizures of illicit drugs reported in 2008, a significant increase over the 76 seizures made in 2007. Inspectors often risk their lives as traffickers stop at nothing to disguise their contraband and sometimes use dangerous cover loads such as potentially radioactive scrap metal to conceal heroin and cocaine.



United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC):
Ketil Ottersen, Senior Programme Coordinator
Tel: +43 1 2606 05528
Send an email

World Customs Organization:
Press enquiries
Tel: +32 (0)2 209 9442
Send an email



United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
UNODC-WCO Container Control Programme, June 2009 Progress Report http://www.unodc.org/documents/organized-crime/containerprogramme/Container_Programme_

UNODC article: Panama gets on board to boost port security http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2009/June/full-steam-ahead_-panama-joins-initiative-to-improve-container-security.html

UNODC press release: UNODC Training Leads to Drugs Seizure at Ghanaian Port

World Customs Organization

UN News Centre




The UN’s Container Control Programme (CCP) helps port authorities to identify and inspect high-risk freight containers. So far, it is operational in Ecuador, Ghana, Pakistan, Senegal, Turkmenistan and, most recently, Panama, a global hub for the transport of containers. 2008. Joint Port Control Unit, Port Tema, Ghana In 2008, Australian customs reported significant seizures of illegal cargo including one raid of nearly 13 million counterfeit brand-name cigarettes concealed inside a “cover load” of machine rolls of paper and water heaters originating from China. Photo/Australian Customs Service Slovenian Customs intercepted 381 kg of cocaine in the Port of Koper concealed in the oil tank of a hydraulic press shipped from Colombia via Costa Rica and Italy. The cocaine, which was suspended in the liquid content of the tanks, was found after an examination using specialized tools, protective clothing and safety equipment. 2008. Photo/Slovenian Customs Customs authorities in Ecuador reported the seizure of 20,000 kg of acetic acid, associated with heroin production, from China. China featured as the departure country in 41 per cent of the total number of seizures of precursor chemicals. Photo/Contecon Guayaquil SA, Ecuador