Smugglers have long tried to find new ways to bring illicit substances, such as Captagon, into the UAE, but Dubai Customs officers spare no effort to stay ahead of the game.
The Jebel Ali Port, the busiest port in the Middle East and one of the biggest in the world, has a capacity to handle more than 22 million containers.
All the containers arriving at the port are scanned for narcotics, explosives and other illegal and counterfeit items.
Captagon in the Middle East
Many kinds of drugs are seized at Jebel Ali port, the most common are Captagon and Tramadol, said Abdulhakim Khalid bin Dasmal, an inspection officer of the Sea Customs Centre Management.
Dubai Customs thwarted 398 attempts to smuggle drugs into the city in the first three months of this year. The largest drug bust among them was a shipment of nearly three million Captagon pills concealed in a container of spare vehicle parts at Jebel Ali Port.
“Inspection officers thwart attempts to smuggle drugs, thanks to the co-ordination between different sections along with the use of advanced technologies,” Mr Dasmal said.
“The shipment with Captagon pills was flagged by our Siyaj monitoring unit, which highlighted it as a chemical hazard. We used our K-9 dog unit to make sure drugs were present in the container. Our specialist team, which is a mobile unit, used a machine that can detect narcotics and even the smallest quantity of illicit drugs, and find out its components.”
Captagon, a brand name for the amphetamine drug fenethylline hydrochloride, was originally produced in the 1960s as an alternative to amphetamine and methamphetamine and was used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and, less commonly, depression. It was banned in most countries in the 1980s because of its highly addictive nature.
Commercial manufacturing of the drug stopped but illegal production continues, often of counterfeit pills sold as Captagon.
Customs officers say Captagon smugglers prefer to use sea ports rather than airports because of the size of shipping containers, enabling them to conceal larger quantities of drugs.
Officers use advanced systems for screening, including a container-scanning system at Jebel Ali Port. A "risk engine" programme automatically detects any high-risk containers and they are flagged for potential hazards. An officer is able to see the risk and inspect accordingly.
“This year and last year, we've seen a large amount of Captagon pills hidden in engines and spare vehicle parts. Captagon pills don’t look any different from other pills. That's why we have to use our specialist teams to identify the drug and detect the components,” Mr Dasmal said.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, trafficking in amphetamines, especially Captagon, has increased in the Middle East in recent years.
“Drug smuggling will always be a problem. There will always be people trying to smuggle illicit goods into the country. So, it's up to Dubai Customs to tighten the noose on drug traffickers and protect society from the hazards of amphetamines.
“Every illicit drug is a high priority for us. We don't differentiate between Captagon, Tramadol, crystal meth or hashish. They're all very high on our radar of trying to stop any illicit drugs from entering the country,” Mr Dasmal said.
Dubai Customs officers receive regular training to keep up with the trends. They are trained to differentiate illegal substances from other items by various means, including spotting them through an X-ray scanner, for example. They are also trained to follow safety precautions during inspections because some items can be dangerous.