Free Trade Zones

Crime at Sea – The Wild West on the Waves


Evariste Bartolo

Tuesday, September 6, 2022, 10:57 a.m.
Last updated: about 36 minutes ago



Transnational organized crime is homogeneous on land, in the air and at sea, but especially at sea. Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (The Global Illicit Economy – March 11, 2021) 811 million 20-foot containers handled in ports around the world (2019) rising to 19,000 billion euros of international trade (2019) generated by 5,400 free zones in the world.

Mmore than 90% of world trade goes through containers, but only about 2% is checked.

The 2018 Global Atlas of Illicit Flows indicates that environmental crime – which includes wildlife crime, fuel smuggling and the illicit mining of gold, diamonds and other natural resources – is now the main source income from non-state armed groups and terrorist organizations, for 38% of conflict financing.

The Mediterranean is at the crossroads of the main global traffic axes: although it barely represents 1% of the world maritime surface, almost 20% of the world maritime traffic passes through it, 25% of liner services on containers, 30% of world oil flows, 65% of the energy flow for EU countries.

Despite the small size of the Mediterranean, a substantial part of global stability and security is at stake here. Many of the world’s crises have their origins in this region. In this context, criminal networks continue to adopt increasingly sophisticated means to circumvent detection and interception mechanisms.

Launched in 2018, the Central Mediterranean Security Initiative, a joint initiative between Malta and the United States, brought together representatives from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, France, Italy and Malta to discuss export control issues in the context of the challenges faced. in the central Mediterranean. Since then, Cyprus and Greece have joined. Malta’s plan is to be as inclusive as possible and to invite more countries to join.

Any Mediterranean country excluded from this initiative weakens the regional cooperative approach necessary to adequately address the threats posed by regional and global organized crime. To be effective, our fight against transnational maritime organized crime must adopt a whole-of-government approach at the national level, seeking cooperation at the regional level but also at the global level. It cannot be one-dimensional and left to law enforcement, customs personnel and security services. We must fight transnational organized crime using economic, cultural, political and environmental tools.

Experience teaches us that maritime trade routes, both legal and illegal, bring our seas and oceans together and we are only as strong as the weakest link. We need to cooperate across different regions to be at least as effective as those who run global organized crime on land and at sea.

Fragmented fight against crime united

The challenges we face in the Central Mediterranean can no longer be credibly addressed by one or a small group of states. If a good is transferred between ships on the high seas in violation of international law, it requires the cooperation of a number of states to respond: the flag state of the ship; the State which suspects that such illicit activity is taking place; perhaps ships or other nearby assets that can directly assess what is happening. Increasingly, these types of checks need to be carried out quickly, before the goods are disposed of – perhaps leaving no trace on the ship. In a sense, the competent authorities in the region are trying to “catch up” with the criminals who engage in these illicit activities.

Malta is mobilizing support for a proposal to blacklist and deflag vessels involved in illegal maritime trade. We are one of the largest shipping registries in the world. What good is it if we deflag a ship, but then another state reflags it and allows it to continue its illegal activity? We want the world to share information about ships and then cooperate to not allow them to run and hide under the flag of other states once they have been active in illegal maritime activities.

We must also share resources in our fight against transnational organized crime. A few years ago, thanks to our cooperation with Italy, France and the United States, Malta seized a large shipment of tramadol pills worth over a billion dollars. We needed and received help to destroy the cargo in incinerators that we don’t own.

We also need to share lab facilities to be able to test suspicious shipments. We must help train our employees to be able to cooperate and work across borders as effectively as the criminals themselves. It is therefore necessary to organize regional meetings, rotate locations and bring people from different regions to talk together, share experiences and then agree on common transnational action. All of this needs to be backed up by good political will because our people on the ground become very demoralized if they see their often risky work going nowhere, feeling that transnational crime can continue with impunity.

Our action must lead to prosecutions, seizures and destruction of illicit material as well as the freezing of assets.

Regional and global geopolitical rivalry makes regional and global cooperation against crime difficult. To complicate matters further, only 16% of the Mediterranean Sea is classified as territorial waters and falls under the jurisdiction of states. The rest belongs to no one and everyone and like the Wild West facilitates anarchy.

While the criminals are transnationally nimble, using all the technologies, operational spaces, and corrupt political and business networks at their disposal, much of the fight against them still relies heavily on national capabilities and political will. Failing or dysfunctional coastal states also weaken the fight against transnational organized crime.

The Mediterranean is today in a state of disorderly multipolarity (“Maritime Security in the Mediterranean – Deciphering the Security Puzzle – Konrad Adenauer Stiftung – 2021”). It makes it difficult to establish effective regional security. While regional and globalized crime is coherent, the fight against it is fragmented. The situation is likely to worsen as neighboring countries continue to contest overlapping areas instead of exploiting them together for mutual benefit.