Nearly 20 million illicit pharmaceutical items were taken off the market in a regional operation coordinated by INTERPOL across the Middle East and North Africa.
COVID-19: a new trend in pharmaceutical crime
Running from 1 February to 1 April 2020, the operation coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, and saw a trend in the trafficking of items related to COVID-19. Among the seizures were:
- 61,000 respiratory masks and one artificial respirator in Morocco;
- 63,418 face masks and 360 sanitizing products in Jordan;
- 85,000 medical products (facemasks, gloves, thermometers, medical glasses, etc.) in Qatar.
These results confirm the trend observed under the global Operation Pangea, also run by INTERPOL, in March. The outbreak of the coronavirus disease has offered an opportunity for fast cash, as criminals take advantage of the high market demand for personal protection and hygiene products.
Removing potentially dangerous items from circulation
The participating countries – Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – carried out inspections and seizures at ports, airports, land borders, free trade zones (entries and exits), postal hubs, warehouses, pharmacies and other points of sales.
They reported seizures of a wide variety of medicines including anaesthetics, analgesics, antimalarial medicines, benzodiazepines (tranquilizers) and corticosteroids, as well as supplements, sexual stimulants and growth hormones. Examples of medical products seized are syringes, suture threads, surgical adhesive tapes and electronic glycaemia readers.
Pharmaceutical crime poses a serious danger to public health. Falsified and counterfeit medicines threaten the lives of the most vulnerable members of society.
“INTERPOL is committed to tackling all forms of pharmaceutical crime and disrupting the activities of the organized criminal groups that profit from it. The volume of illicit medicines and counterfeit medical products seized during this operation is a reminder of the extent of this global problem and the very real risk to public safety,” said Paul Stanfield, INTERPOL Director for Organized and Emerging Crime.
Authorities in Iraq reported two major cases. In the first, officials seized around 761,000 boxes of illicit medicines in seven shipping containers, with an estimated value of nearly USD 2 million. In the second case, authorities seized around 400 boxes and 9 million illicit pills.
“The extent of these seizures demonstrates the need for operations such as Qanoon, and shows the success that can be achieved when countries coordinate their law enforcement efforts among police, customs and regulatory authorities,” commented the Ministry of Interior, General Directorate for Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Iraq.
In Kuwait, 16 seizures were reported totalling almost 10 million medical pills, mainly Tramadol (an opioid painkiller). The illicit trade in Tramadol trade affects a number of countries in the region and is driven by terrorist groups as a means of financing their activities.
Building on the foundations of the first phase of Operation Qanoon in 2018, seizures in this second phase were significantly higher: with around 20 million items seized in 2020 compared with 1.5 million in 2018.
Side seizures of Captagon
Law enforcement officials in the region made notable side seizures of methamphetamine and Captagon amounting to nearly 5 million pills and tablets. While these narcotics were not in the specific remit of Operation Qanoon and are not included in the official results, they clearly indicate the proliferation of this type of high stimulant street drugs in the region. Captagon, an amphetamine, is widely associated with ISIL/Da’esh, both in terms of financing its terrorist activities and by use by its fighters in combat.
Qanoon is a multi-year initiative targeting illicit medicines and medical products in the Middle East and North Africa region. The initiative collects and shares information in order to identify transnational issues and trends, support investigations and dismantle criminal networks.
It also works to create a pool of experts (police services, health, customs agencies, judiciary and the private sector) to support sustainable cooperation and actions.