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Tue 3 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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What lies beneath: Contraband

Smugglers constantly try to bring drugs, explosives and millions of counterfeit goods into Dubai. Melissa Sleiman meets the people at Dubai Customs who fight them.

Smugglers constantly try to bring drugs, explosives and millions of counterfeit goods into Dubai. Melissa Sleiman meets the people at Dubai Customs who fight them.

Pigeons strapped inside an aeroplane passenger's pants. Explosives stashed in electronic devices. Containers full of lettuce, hiding drugs in their cores. It takes quite an inventive mind to get illegal goods into Dubai.

Consequently, Dubai Customs is stepping up action to keep up with the smugglers' methods. Over the past year, their technical department spent around 26 million dirhams (US$7 million) on the staff, trainings and their equipment, according to Mohammed Musabeh Bin Dhahi, Senior Manager of the Operations and Technical Support Department.

Bin Dhahi's office is located in a ship-shaped building next to Port Rashid serving as the main office of Dubai Customs. There are 2300 officers working for the governmental department, spread out over 16 locations across the city.

When I meet Bin Dhahi, he strikes me as religious - he doesn't stretch out his arm to give me a handshake, but merely smiles instead - and helpful. His eyes are hidden behind silver-framed glasses and he has a gentle and kind look on his face. He is wearing a plain white dishdash and has a long, curly beard cut in a rectangular shape.

We sit down at each side of Bin Dhahi's desk as he starts explaining what kind of goods the inspectors are on the lookout for. He's been with Dubai Customs for 15 years and begins by telling me the facts.

"More than 80 percent of our seizures is drugs," he says. "After that comes counterfeit merchandise such as fake designer bags and watches -around 10 percent of seizures.

"Commonly smuggled goods we look at are cigarettes, electronics, and foodstuff. The latter two are mostly used for hiding things inside. Recently, smugglers brought a container full of lettuce with drugs hidden in them. You put it inside when the vegetables are still small, causing the lettuce to grow around it." Thus it becomes difficult to detect.

At the end of January, customs officials seized 16 kilograms of pure heroin packed into hollowed-out salted almonds - slightly over half the total amount in 2008.

Noting the passenger's hesitation when claiming his luggage from the carrousel, inspection officers placed him under surveillance and found the heroin packed in a way that suggested they were gifts.

Another common method used globally to bring drugs into countries is by putting them inside a courier's stomach. Usually, the substance they swallow is packed into containers made up of two condoms in an effort to prevent breakage, as the stomach's acidity tries to digest them.

It's almost a foolproof method as there is no detectable smell - except when a container breaks and the courier dies.

Or, he could get found out and arrested upon arrival at the airport. "We have a special ‘Rover' team which looks at body language," says Bin Dhahi. "More than twenty of its people are always present at the airport. Airlines also cooperate with us. They inform us if a passenger doesn't eat or if he behaved strangely."

Arriving passengers get a body scan once they are marked as being suspect. "We have four systems at the airport which show the shape of things, such as when there are tablets in someone's stomach. More than a hundred suspects a day are scanned."

However, it is merely a fraction of the total amount of arrivals - around 2 or 3 percent. So is it possible to pass through without the goods being detected?

"Yes," he confirms. "If you're an experienced smuggler who doesn't show signs of strange behaviour and thus don't get scanned, it is possible."

Bin Dhahi is quick to point out that Dubai Customs has many other ways to catch illegal supplies. "We have a system that can detect drugs, narcotics and explosives at the same time," he tells me proudly. "We swipe a special material on the goods and put what is swiped in the system. That will tell us whether there is something in them."

In addition, Dubai Customs has an intelligence department which provides information about all possible threats and risks. It analyzes information received from ships, the airport, and cargo village.

Undercover agents clue the department in on suspect activity. Intelligence then draws a risk profile for different companies, countries and customers. The technical and operations department acts on that feedback.

The officials bring in dogs if they get an indication of suspect materials. The unit has been active from the second half of 2008 after enduring smell training for almost a year. Four are used to identify drugs, two can seek out explosives. They are Labradors and Malinois from Holland.

But while drugs and explosives can get sniffed out, it's a whole different story when it comes to identifying counterfeit goods. Those include watches, bags, clothes, electronics, and so forth of fake brands.The quantity of such merchandise in Dubai has mushroomed in the past two years. It has increased from around 3.3 million in 2006 to 21.5 million in September 2008, according to statistics of the Dubai Customs Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) department. However, the total value has decreased from almost 19 million to 560,000 dirhams.

A glass closet in one of the hallways of the building of the Port Rashid office has various counterfeit and genuine items on display for comparison. A fake ‘Dior' lipgloss has different printing on the packaging.

The colours of a fake Philip Morris cigarette packet are lighter than that of the real one. And a counterfeit Louis Vuitton bag is made of such a bad quality that it didn't seem necessary to place a genuine sample next to it.

The IPR officers receive training to be able to differentiate between real and fake. They learn about the trademarks of auto spare parts, skincare products, electronics and so forth. Diploma's of certification given out by various companies are hanging next to the office of Yousuf Ozair Mubarak, Senior Manager of IPR.

"The methods of counterfeiting are the same all across the globe," Mubarak tells me.

"Organised criminals are usually behind these smuggling operations." The inspectors can seize the counterfeit goods in accordance with the Trademark Law. The dealers, which are usually from East Asia, can receive a fine and a stiff penalty determined by the court.

To prevent getting caught, some dealers import unprinted goods to Dubai without the fake logo's on them so that the customs will have no reason to seize the goods, according to Mubarak. The criminals have a machine to print the logo's on the goods inside the country.

Another category of smuggling that is difficult to keep track of, is that of animals. In February, an Australian man managed to successfully smuggle two pigeons out of Dubai. He'd wrapped them in padded envelopes and strapped them inside tights he was wearing underneath his pants. The smuggler was caught at the airport in Australia after a body search.

"There are people who smuggle small snakes and monkeys in their jackets," adds Bin Dhahi. He says that less than 10 percent of seizures is that of rare animals. "We sometimes find them by chance. There is no certain technology to detect them. We're not scanning the bodies of all passengers coming through the airport. The bags are the only ones which are checked."

And then there is also human trafficking. Last month, the head of the UAE National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking urged law enforcement agencies to pursue potential cases. Dubai Police made arrests in 16 cases involving human trafficking, The National reported earlier.

Bin Dhahi believes that such cases are more often detected in other emirates such as Abu Dhabi and Fujairah. "They are on the borders of the emirates, whereas Dubai is in the middle," he explains.

"That's why the smugglers will usually be checked at customs centers over there. Humans can move freely within the UAE once they pass the main border, so they will not be stopped at a center in Dubai as well."

He tells me that the main hotspots when it comes to seizing goods are the airport, cargo village and Jebel Ali, where a port is located as well. Each port has a huge x-ray scanner for containers coming in worth 10 million dirhams (US$2,7 million). It checks if there are any abnormalities in the density of the freight.

Chemical substances are examined with the use of a machine that determines whether there is something illegal in them. As we are standing in the mobile lab of Dubai Customs, he shows me that the inspectors can place a sample of a substance in the piece of equipment which will then study and describe what it's made up of.

The van containing the apparatus is on standy 24/7 to assist at the various customs locations. It was a less costly solution than putting up the machines in every location. The mobile lab is permanently manned by two or three people and pulls out after receiving a request for support from the control space.

The room, located in the main customs office, continuously manages all centers and coordinates with them. It has access to 60 camera's and will expand to 600 - when those of all 16 locations are linked to the network - in the course of this year. Members of the Rover team also monitor from the control room. They look for signs and tips and help when an incident occurs.

So does it ever happen that there were any last moment seizures, I ask. A James Bond-esque chase just after the inspector realised that something illegal was passing through?

"No," answers Bin Dhahi immediately. "We check the goods more than one time and are extremely thorough. Having skilled people and the best equipment available all the time, is definitely an advantage when having to fight smuggling."

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