Estonia's busiest road hit by drug smuggling boom

Drugs and firarms confiscated by the Estonian Tax and Customs Board.
Drugs and firarms confiscated by the Estonian Tax and Customs Board. Source: Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA).

Something unusual has been happening on the stretch of road between Ikla and Pärnu. In the first three months of this year alone, more than ten large consignments of smuggled narcotics have been caught on what is the busiest stretch of road in Estonia. According to experts, the smuggling boom is most likely the result of anti-Russian sanctions, which have also disrupted criminal trade routes.

On February 11 this year, shortly after 10 o'clock, a truck with Latvian number plates heading towards Pärnu attracted the attention of the Estonian Tax and Customs Board's (MTA) highway patrol officers.

Following an initial check, it already seemed that truck's documents appeared to have been falsified and the Latvian driver's story about where the goods were heading was full of contradictions. The truck, a Volvo, was sent to the customs yard and its trailer X-rayed. Within minutes, it became clear that behind the seemingly innocent row of pallets in board, crates of contraband cigarettes and alcohol had been hidden behind.

Three days later, in essentially the same location, a similar incident occurred. On the night of February 14, customs officers stopped a hire car with Latvian number plates, which was being driven by a Belarusian national. The load he was carrying twice as large as the previous one.

However, it was not until two days after that, on 16 February, that they hit the jackpot. According to the paperwork, the white Renault, which had begun its journey in Belgium, was carrying 100 kilograms of amphetamines, with a street value of nearly €2 million. Two automatic weapons were also found in the vehicle, one of which was loaded. This led to the police arriving.

Estonian law enforcement officers are baffled as to why ten major consignments of smuggled narcotics have been intercepted on the same stretch of road in the first few months of this year. The amount recovered is a record for the region in recent years.

"The surge in demand can't be so drastic that we're talking about hundreds of kilos or even tons. What we are saying is that this is definitely not (intended) for the Estonian market, it is likely to be heading on to Scandinavia or Russia," said Ago Leis, head of the organized crime bureau at the Central Criminal Police.

By the end of March, a total of almost 5,000 liters of spirits, three million unmarked cigarettes, 120 kilograms of amphetamines and 24 kilograms of cannabis had been retrieved.

So far this year, the west Estonian branch of the Tax and Customs Board has detected more drugs this year than for the whole of the previous decade combined.

"For us, it's a crazy situation. What we have seen in the first two months of the year is something that I have to say, I have never seen before during my long career in the forces," said Kunnar Keres, Chief Inspector of the MTA's western branch. "Twenty kilos of amphetamines, ten kilos of marijuana, ten kilos of marijuana, four kilos of marijuana – these are just the quantities that /.../ pass through," he said.

"Yes, so then questions about what's actually going on, naturally arise. /.../ Just, these kinds of  quantities, during the course of a routine customs check. You stop the car and there it is," said Rain Kuus, head of the MTA's investigations department.

"So maybe the work we've been doing all along, the resources we've had have been the same. We are working as hard as we can /.../, but the quantities of goods have simply increased, both in terms of cigarettes and alcohol - excise goods - and narcotics," Kuus said.

On Thursday, when ETV's investigative show "Pealtnägija" went to see what work was like for customs inspectors on a random Thursday, the first impression was, that it was pretty uneventful. In addition to various databases, the customs headquarters runs a round-the-clock video feed, beamed direct from the border. This gives officials a chance to check up on the backgrounds of people entering Estonia. If a vehicle is of interest, it is usually stopped somewhere along the road soon after crossing the border.

According to Chief Inspector Keres, there are no limits to the ingenuity and audacity of smugglers. "(There could be) trunks with false bottoms, air pockets in the dashboard, airbags taken out, or instead of having side compartments, there are double flaps on the cars. There are so many different ways (of doing it)," he said.

On February 22 for example, customs intercepted a tow truck of Latvian origin, which was carrying British-branded BMW SUV as cargo. When investigators opened up two suitcases, which were among the luggage on board, they found 22 kilograms of amphetamines in amongst piles of clothes and toys. The street value of the drugs on board would have been enough to buy 20 of the same BMWs they were being transported in.

In the example mentioned above from February 16, a small truck was also brought into Estonia, this time via Latvia, on a similar single-car trailer.

"The truck had Belgian registration plates. However, /.../ the question immediately arose as to why a car should be transported from Belgium to Estonia, and so the officials decided to check the vehicle," said Rain Kuus.

"The second car was full to the brim with various items - furniture, towels, bags /.../, sofas and other things. The car was so stuffed full of things, that it gave the impression of being a house on wheels. And then, inside the sofa box was all this stuff, hidden inside bags. Of course, the sofa had been sprayed with a different chemical, really heavily. It was completely soaked, so as not to arouse our dogs' interest, and so the dogs would not pick up on the scent so easily," said Keres.

Even families with children are used for smuggling

One of the latest tricks being used to evade detection by the authorities, according to researchers, is the use of tow trucks, hire cars and even taxis to give the impression that the people involved are on a regular tourist trip. Women and families with children have also both been used as couriers.

"Certainly, there are young families too. If you stop a car and there's a young mother and father with a one-month-old baby and 11 kilos of cannabis in the trunk,  then that's definitely not a good feeling for us," said Keres.

"We often see conspiracy, we hear bird calls when we are on patrol and every attempt to cover up these activities," said Harrys Puusepp, bureau chief at the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) also known as KAPO.

In addition to storing drugs in hidden vehicle compartments, some smugglers still use their own bodies to transport them. Keres recalled one recent incident, in which courier risked his life in an attempt to conceal a huge quantity of the opioid carfentanil from customs inspectors.

"It was a taxi with two people in it. There were two packages of condoms in the woman's handbag, one open and one closed. It was a very simple indicator, which made us wonder why it was like that, and why they would leave things like that in their handbag. /.../ And our decision in the end was, that we would take (the man) to Pärnu hospital for an internal body examination. And of course, there, we identified what we had been looking for. Our suspicions were confirmed," Keres said.

Based on the laboratory results, the amount of drugs in the man's system would have been enough to intoxicate 30,000 people. Had the packages inside him split, he would not have survived.

"Pealtnägija" was next taken on a trip to the area near Uulu, a village in Pärnu County. According to information received beforehand, a truck had been pulled over for a spot check. Customs officers stopped several vehicles in a row, even a regular bus, which was on its way from Berlin to Tallinn.

"We have also had quite a few cases in the past, where regular buses were used to transport prohibited substances. Again, this is a really good approach. You get on the bus, take your luggage, throw it in the trunk and then arrive at your destination undisturbed," explained Keres.

Smugglers find it easier to hide in heavy traffic

Ikla to Pärnu is the busiest section of road in Estonia, with more than 4,000 vehicles a day and one and a half million a year passing through. Not only is it the most direct route between Central Europe and the Baltics, but the heavy traffic also makes it easier for smugglers to hide.

According to international estimates, the police only catch between five and ten percent of drug smugglers, meaning that at any given time, another vehicle carrying narcotics could pass by undetected.

"That's what they try to hide behind, to be invisible among this whole Via Baltica traffic chain," said Keres.

"You can see how many vehicles are on it, and so it's better to squeeze the trucks in here than to try and drive through a forest clearing somewhere. /.../ Criminals try to hide drugs in these vehicles and sometimes firearms too. /.../ All of these are the goods that organized crime needs and profits from," explained Ago Leis.

Sanctions on Russia biggest cause of smuggling boom

By all accounts, the current situation is a result of several smaller factors, from the bust of several organized criminal gangs operating in Estonia, which left a gap in the market, to increased demand for drugs in Scandinavia.

However, the biggest recent change to have an impact, is the imposition of sanctions on Russia due to its ongoing war in Ukraine, which sharply reduced traffic flow between east and west.

"In the past we could talk about the Narva border crossing as well as Luhamaa (Võru County) and Koidula (Põlva County). Of course, Latvia and Lithuania have their own border crossings too. Because of the sanctions, freight traffic has now decreased or disappeared altogether," said Leis.

"Before the war, for instance, the average waiting time for a truck at the Narva border crossing was 24 hours, but now it's ten days. The possibility of getting caught with your drugs, which cost a lot, is much higher than it might have been before," said Kuus.

The dramatic reduction in cross-border traffic since the start of Russia's full-scale war, maybe be one factor which has made it more difficult for drug smugglers. So, like luxury goods traders, criminals have also had to re-think their supply channels since the sanctions were introduced.

The increase in drug busts on the Ikla-Pärnu road so far this year, may be a sign that goods, which were previously destined for Russia, such as cocaine, are now instead moving through Estonia to the Nordic countries. It may also be the case, that contraband items, which previously came from Russia including cigarettes without tax stamps, are now being produced in the Baltics and is then transported via Estonia to Scandinavia.

"The price difference between Estonia and Finland isn't that big, maybe €1 per package. But if you take a box of cigarettes there, it's already €500, because there are 500 packs in a box and you can fit ten boxes in a car. /.../ And if you get €1 per pack /.../ then that's €5,000. That's the amount of money that makes people take the risk and move in that direction," explained Keres.

"Organized crime has this tendency, whereby when it sees that someone is turning off the taps in one place, it will then move to infiltrate the next place, where the taps have not been turned off. Because quantities (of drugs) in Europe are actually on the increase. Let's also consider the trafficking of cocaine into Europe. If in the 1980s the main export market for cocaine was the United States, then Europe is now very much /.../ becoming number one, just in terms of the quantities being shipped through major European ports," said Leis.

While people might be indifferent to the surge in smuggling, particularly as the vast majority involves goods, which are then destined to move on from Estonia, according to head of the organized crime bureau at the Central Criminal Police Ago Leis, that would be the wrong way to look at it.

That there has been a recent upsurge in drug-related deaths in Estonia is one thing. However, experience from around the world shows that an increase in organized crime also brings other risks.

"These are the new dangers that we may have to face in this region in the future too. Large sums of money, large quantities of drugs, different groups, (perhaps using) firearms for their own security or to solve certain problems," said Leis.

"We know from examples around the world, that terrorist attacks have been carried out with quite simple tools, with ordinary, everyday things. We're talking about cars, knives and other things like that, which can't be banned. All the more reason for those weapons that are extremely dangerous, that can kill a lot of people and, to definitely be placed under a lot more scrutiny," Puusepp said.

"In this case, we can look to an example from recent history, where European countries and internationally, in cooperation with the FBI, carried out Operation Trojan Shield (ANOM), in which a 3D printing workshop, which was producing automatic weapons, was actually discovered in Finland. These are the threats and the risks that need to be addressed." said Leis.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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