Operation cracking down on criminals targeting Grimsby and Immingham's ports to smuggle goods and people
Ports are a target of international criminals, but a dedicated team of officials are there 24 hours a day to protect the public. Crime reporter Peter Craig finds out more about a new operation to crack down on criminals.
INTERNATIONAL crime barons are targeting Grimsby and Immingham's ports to smuggle contraband goods and people.
And senior police and border security officers have warned that the crime networks trafficking goods and humans could pose a threat to our national security by exporting terrorism to our shores.
But a new operation to curb illegal transportation of people and goods is turning the hundreds of truck drivers who work at the ports into "super heroes".
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On the eve of the recent launch of the project, codenamed Yali, a haul of nearly- smuggled 50,000 cigarettes were seized in Immingham.
Two lorries had arrived from Cuxhaven, in Germany, with the illegal cigarettes crammed into lockers in the cabs.
The discovery came just three weeks after a consignment of 50,000 cigarettes were found at Killingholme, having arrived from the Hook of Holland in a concealed compartment under the trailer of another lorry.
These two incidents alone illustrate how frequently criminals and smugglers are caught, and now officials have turned to port workers to be eyes and ears too.
As part of Yali, an information hotline is available for lorry drivers to report incidents to, its aim to help tackle the "growing scourge sweeping our community".
All truckers have been called upon to be the "caped crusaders" of security forces to prevent the smuggling of drugs, weapons, counterfeit goods, wildlife –including giant snails – rhino horns and parrots.
Humberside Police, the UK Border Force, the Counter Terrorism Unit, Associated British Ports, Crimestoppers and businesses have all teamed up to cut crime.
Our ports handle ever-increasing amounts of cargo.
Indeed, Immingham is the largest cargo handling port, by tonnage, in the UK, dealing with 54 million tonnes of cargo per year.
Most of that is handled by rail and pipeline, but 20 million tonnes moves in and out of the port by lorry.
That means up to 130 lorries go in and out the gates every hour.
In the first three months of this year, there were more than 30,000 lorries using the ports combined.
And that figure does not include the thousands of containers and bulk cargoes often used to smuggle goods.
Superintendent Tracey Bradley, of Humberside Police, said: "The volume of traffic using the Humber ports on a daily basis is phenomenal and we believe that closer working with our partners in the transport business is essential to reduce the risk from terrorism and organised crime.
"If Humberside Police and the local transport community can effectively work together by sharing information and intelligence, we can better protect the Humberside area – and vigilance at all times will be our defence."
Project Yali, named after a Hindu temple dragon symbolising vigilance and protection, extends the network established through Operation Pegasus, for airports, and Operation Kraken among fishermen and sailors.
It encourages haulage companies to call Crimestoppers, which will provide a clear structure for the reporting of unusual activity or behaviour suspected to be linked with terrorism or organised crime.
There will also be an increase in the number of trucks stopped and searched.
Police officers and UK Border Force officers will visit truck stops along the M180 corridor to distribute posters and ask for drivers' help.
Superintendent Bradley continued: "By telling us what they see, it is a chance for the drivers to be super heroes.
"It is a civic duty for all of us, and an opportunity to do the right thing."
Captain Martin Gough, dock master for Immingham, said Associated British Ports (ABP), which operates the ports, is happy to support the campaign.
A robust security system is constantly in operation at the docks and security exercises are regularly held with Humberside Police.
Mr Gough said: "We feel with the assistance of the drivers of these lorries, the vigilance capabilities of the police and security authorities can only be enhanced, which is why ABP is happy to support Project Yali.
"We see it as the next step to enhance that vigilance and raise security awareness among a group of people who are also regular port users."
The methods used by international crime gangs are becoming increasingly sophisticated, according to the UK Border Force, and the human cost of such activity can sometimes lead to tragic consequences.
Sam Bullimore, assistant director of the Border Force for the North and Humber region, highlighted the case of a lorry found at Dover with 58 Chinese nationals in the rear – all of whom had died. Often, lorry drivers are completely unaware of what they are carrying in their trailers.
Mr Bullimore described how people illegally smuggling immigrants in to the UK will use vents in concealed compartments in lorries to hide them.
On other occasions, plastic sheets have been used to cover the immigrants, and avoid being detected by the CO2 probes used by border security, but this has resulted in suffocation.
Boot spaces in cars have also been adapted to conceal people and goods.
As an example, in the financial year of 2010/11, nationwide the agency seized more than 650 million cigarettes and 314,775 kilos of hand rolling tobacco at the UK border.
Such smuggling deprives the UK of about £2 billion of revenue every year.
Mr Bullimore praised officers at our ports for their skill, expertise and technical knowledge in detecting contraband goods.
Urging drivers to alert the police if they see anything suspicious, he said: "That snippet of information might be part of a bigger picture that can stop this kind of thing happening."
"Our staff work constantly to keep our border secure and to make life as tough as possible for smugglers.
"Cigarette smuggling, for example, is not a victimless crime. It defrauds the public purse out of huge sums of money at a time when the country can least afford it.
"The gangs behind this sort of criminality are also often involved in other serious organised crime."
Coal-carrying cargo ships are also searched by officials. A team of his officers once uncovered a large haul of cocaine in a cargo ship from South America, after searching all 18 holds of the ship.
The drugs had been hidden under tonnes of coal.
Kevin Parsons, a senior officer for the UK Border Force, said when he started in his job nearly 30 years ago, a haul of 400 cigarettes was regarded as a big seizure. Now, they are regularly 100 times larger.
His biggest haul was 10 million cigarettes in a consignment arriving in Immingham, bound for Manchester.
Officers can take over half a day to search a lorry, but the use of scanners has speeded up and increased the frequency of searches.
They can quickly spot anomalies in paperwork submitted by lorry drivers, which can lead to a full check of the cargo. On one occasion, millions of cigarettes were found in industrial paper rolls.
And on others, they have uncovered wildlife, including giant snails, being brought into the country. One man even tried to smuggle a parrot inside his trousers, Mr Parsons recalled.
"We need to make it clear to the port community that there is major organised crime coming through our ports," he said.
"They need shipping agents and drivers to be able to transport their goods and put them on the streets. Yali is about what workers can do to help us."
Geoff Hand is the fleet support operator at DSV Road Ltd, of South Killingholme, which is one of the biggest hauliers on the South Bank.
He said: "The project is going to be positive. The industry in which we work has to be seen to be doing something positive, and we must support the police as much as we can.
"Driving a truck is a nomadic way of life. The driver is on their own. We don't want them to think they are always on their own but can turn to someone when they need to."
Anyone with information about activity they suspect may be linked to smuggling and organised crime should call 0800 595000 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.