On February 11, 2019, 90 representatives from various international organizations and national law enforcement agencies met at the INTERPOL headquarters in Lyon, France for the 6th Global Meeting of the Airport Communication Project (AIRCOP). AIRCOP is a coordinated effort by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), INTERPOL, and the World Customs Organization (WCO). It strives to improve the capacities of international airports to catch and confiscate illicit goods including drugs, as well as high-risk passengers at any and all points of their journey.
The meeting, which ran from February 11 to 13, gathered a wide variety of attendees. It featured members from AIRCOP national focal points, particularly from countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, where AIRCOP focuses their operations. It also included trainers and mentors from national law enforcement agencies that partner with AIRCOP, as well as international agencies that work alongside AIRCOP, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT). Private donors, like the European Union (EU), also attended. The EU is the largest financial contributor to AIRCOP, largely because it began as an operation specific to the EU. In 2010, the EU launched the Cocaine Route Programme, which aimed to reduce cocaine trafficking to Europe via passenger transportation, cargo, and mail. Since then, the project has expanded in scale and scope, utilizing global cooperation to assist regions most vulnerable to drug trafficking.
The meeting touched on a variety of topics. Participants discussed the evolving threats that criminals pose, often appearing “smarter” or “faster” than national law enforcement personnel. They pointed specifically to organized crime and terrorism as threats AIRCOP must address. Attendees also reflected on AIRCOP’s past successes, achieved through cooperative techniques such as the sharing of best practices. Those successes include seizing eight tons of cocaine, $14.5 million in undeclared funds, and two persons wanted on INTERPOL Red Notices, among many others. Various high-level officials presented remarks outlining AIRCOP’s growth and success. UNODC Division for Operations Director Ms. Miwa Kato, for example, noted that, “Through our joint efforts, we have come a long way, not only by welcoming new countries, but also by targeting and combating all types of threats that occur on airport platforms.” Other premier personnel, including Tim Morris, INTERPOL Executive Director of Public Service, and Ana Hinojosa, WCO Director of Compliance and Facilitation, offered remarks as well.
AIRCOP has confronted – and continues to confront – an array of global issues. In 2017, they partnered with EUROPOL and the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance (NCFTA) to crack down on an international airline ticket fraud scheme. While AIRCOP focused their operations on airports in Africa and the Middle East, they assisted in detaining a total of 195 individuals. Several of these individuals aimed to smuggle illicit substances across borders, using the cheaply purchased tickets to fly back and forth with greater frequency. Over 60 countries from around the globe participated in the operation. More recently, the UNODC – one of AIRCOP’s three branches – has noticed an increase in drug trafficking throughout West Africa, where the profits made from selling drugs routinely go to terrorist organizations. Although AIRCOP has noticed drugs like methamphetamine streaming through airports in Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin, the UNODC has stressed that drug trafficking is harming the entire region, with Executive Director Yury Fedotov noting that, “UNODC is registering new alarming trends on drug trafficking in West and Central Africa with disruptive and destabilizing effects on governance, security, economic growth, and public health.” Drugs transported throughout the region include not just methamphetamine, but heroine, cocaine, and a variety of opioids.
To confront these evolving and developing threats, AIRCOP must do exactly what they outlined in their 6th Global Meeting – evolve and develop. The international organization has proven highly effective in shutting down illicit trafficking that flows through airports, and by continuing to improve the means by which member states share information and coordinate operations, AIRCOP may prove even more effective.