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STOCKHOLM – At the height of the pandemic, when roads to Sweden were largely closed, the customs and coastguard patrols turned their attention to the sea – and what they discovered made them worried.
Small boats, which often moved with lights off at night, were reported to be carrying drugs and other illegal cargo across the water between Denmark and Sweden.
Meanwhile, it was thought that the crew of larger cargo boats passing through Sweden threw packages overboard for smaller crafts to collect.
Patrik Linden, head of the Coast Guard station based in the southern Swedish port city of Malmö, recently initiated a joint effort with the customs authority, called Operation Porpoise, to track maritime smugglers. he told local media this summer, he was worried that his agency only saw “the tip of the iceberg”.
Now, three months of intelligence gathering later, he said the joint mission must continue.
“We have to keep an eye on this,” he told POLITICO. “It is important that we increase the risk of detection for marine smugglers.”
Police assessments proposes that 100 to 150 tonnes of illegal drugs be imported into Sweden every year – about 52 percent hashish, 22 percent marijuana, 12 percent cocaine, 11 percent amphetamine and 3 percent other drugs. The industry generates between 1 and 1.5 billion euros per year, the authorities say.
The largest proportion of drugs that enter Sweden come via a road connection from Denmark – via the mighty Öresund Bridge, by Nordic noir fame – but a significant proportion also come in via air and sea.
Takes to the water
When the pandemic struck, Denmark closed the Öresund Bridge and most air connections were cut off. However, the smugglers’ sea routes remained open.
Two several million cocaine finds – one on a cargo boat in Uddevalla’s western harbor and one on a remote beach in Nyhamnsläge, north of Malmö – drew attention to the extent of these efforts.
Swedish customs data showed an increase in drug finds in 2020, with the amount of cocaine seized rising to 216 kilos from 43 kilos the year before. The Uddevalla and Nyhamnsläge cases accounted for more than half of the total.
Experts say they believe the use of boats to power drugs had increased for several years, but probably increased again during the pandemic. The reduction in air and road traffic also freed up the official resources to focus on marine smuggling, which helped them to have a better sense of such activity.
Exact figures for maritime smuggling are still difficult to obtain, but successful raids in the seas outside Sweden are still rare. The journey for a small boat moving between Denmark and Sweden can be as little as 10 minutes, and the water is often teeming with completely innocent traffic.
– These drug smugglers and traffickers of other illegal products always try to respond to the controls that the authorities put in place, says Kim Moeller, criminology researcher at Malmö University. “It’s a bit like turning to boats because bridges were harder to police for a while – that’s to be expected.”
Surprise in the seaweed
Swedish authorities say that illegal drugs entering the country have different origins, with hashish largely coming from Morocco and cocaine from South America. The latter usually approaches Europe on large cargo boats, which first go to the Netherlands.
In ports such as Rotterdam, cocaine can be moved to smaller cargo boats to more distant markets such as Scandinavia. These drugs can then be unloaded at destination ports, such as Gothenburg or Uddevalla, or dropped overboard on the way to be fished out of the water.
After passing important European entrances such as Dutch or Spanish ports, illegal drugs can also be moved to land roads to cross the continent and back to small boats for the last stretch across the water to the Swedish coast.
The Swedish Customs published a dramatic one video of its success in Uddevalla harbor bust, with an officer telling a colleague to “get [a smuggler] on the ground ”when trying to escape. But it was the Nyhamnsläge case – partly due to its scope and partly due to the odd nature of the investigation – that attracted more national attention to the illegal traffic off the coast of Sweden.
A local man who was walking his dog along the Nyhamnsläge beach in September last year came across several hugs wrapped in trash cans, which were kept closed by tape. Suspecting the brick-like objects inside were drugs, he called the police who came and kept watch behind the dunes to see if anyone would claim the bags.
Meanwhile, the police received a tip from the Coast Guard, which had rescued two men floating outside Nyhamnsläge in a boat with a damaged propeller the night before. The men, both from Stockholm, said they had been out fishing, but the late hour and the stormy weather prompted the Coast Guard to report the incident as suspicious.
The next day, the police knocked on the “fishermen’s” phones and heard a complaint that he had not managed to find cocaine worth 10 million euros that he would have collected after a cargo ship. “The idiot who threw it out, the captain, tied it with a damn neon string, a loop around it like a bloody present, so it came loose from the buoy,” the suspect suspected. sa, according to police interceptions.
A court in Helsingborg’s south coast city recently sentenced both men to severe prison sentences, largely due to the accusing telephone evidence. The man believed to have carried out the retrieval operation was sentenced to 10 years and his accomplice to six years.
Neither the boat from which the drugs were thrown nor the men’s wider network was ever identified.
Linden from the Coast Guard said that his agency needs to continue intensified intelligence gathering at sea while their partners in the Swedish Customs continue to pay more attention to boats in the countless small ports along the Swedish coast.
He acknowledged that the authorities could not trust that broken package strings and damaged propellers prevented the smugglers every time.
“What we have found so far has to some extent been the result of certain mistakes by criminals,” he said. “We need to get a better understanding of what’s going on.”