Passengers leaving UK checked for drug profits

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The Independent Online

Customs and Excise has changed tactics to focus on flights leaving Britain in the hope of confiscating the cash profits of the drugs trade.

Customs and Excise has changed tactics to focus on flights leaving Britain in the hope of confiscating the cash profits of the drugs trade.

Sniffer dogs have been trained to detect banknotes as customs intelligence operations have revealed staggering amounts of suspected drugs cash being smuggled out of London airports.

In recent weeks investigators have raided a string of foreign exchange offices, believed to have been fronts for money laundering by international drug cartels. More than 20 Colombians have been arrested.

The new tactics are part of a radical change in thinking by customs chiefs who now believe they can cause greater damage to traffickers by hitting their cash profits than by seizing their unsold drugs.

The fresh approach was ordered by the new Customs and Excise chairman, Richard Broadbent, a former investment banker. He wants investigators to treat the drugs cartels as rival business ventures that need to be put out of action by being harried at every stage of their operation.

One senior customs source said: "This is about looking at criminality in an economic model. It is something we have never done before. We want to strip the capital out of their businesses." The cash-heavy nature of the drugs trade, and the difficulties of disposing of the dirty money, have been identified as the weak link.

The Government will thisautumn introduce legislation making it easier to confiscate the profits and assets of suspected drugs suppliers. Thetaret is to reduce the availability of Class A drugs by 25 per cent by 2005.

The change in direction follows a recognition of the long-term failure to reduce the street availability of heroin and the collapse of a series of expensive court cases brought against alleged drug traffickers. Such prosecutions often cost £3m or more, and have to contend with highly paid defence lawyers. "The price of investigations is going up," said a source.

Instead of concentrating resources on arresting drugs couriers - who are often expendable to the cartels - investigators are aiming at the money handlers, who are higher in the chain of command.

Customs recently carried out a survey of flights leaving London for Turkey, where the mafias who control the British heroin trade are based, and discovered £150m in cash being flown out in three months.

One suspected member of a Jamaican drugs gang was arrested by investigators boarding a return flight to the Caribbean and found to be in possession of £750,000 in cash. When such large amounts of money are found, the cash is seized as the likely proceeds of drugs dealing.

Invariably, the money is handed over because the suspects have no desire to explain their wealth in court. "One thing they always ask for is a Customs and Excise receipt," said a senior customs source. "Without it they would be shot when they return home."

As part of the new strategy, Customs will be more active overseas, attacking the drugs supply chain at all stages, including the countries where the drugs are produced. Customs now has more than 100 drugs investigators working abroad and recent successful operations have been carried out in Peru, Guyana and Venezuela, preventing large quantities of cocaine from reaching Britain.