Authorities in Argentina are prosecuting 48 customs officials accused of leading an elaborate network that made millions forging records of Chinese imports, highlighting how vulnerable the country's ports are to customs fraud.
Judge Marcelo Aguinsky said the scale of the crime operation was “unique” in that he froze $337 million worth of assets belonging to some of the accused on November 8, La Nación reported.
The organization is accused of falsifying records of goods imported from China to Argentina, mainly between 2014 and 2015, in order to avoid taxes.
In 2014, for example, China recorded 917,000 tons of textile exports to Argentina, while the South American country recorded 87,000 tons. A year later, in 2015, these numbers dropped considerably. China recorded around just two million tons of exports while Argentina had only 111,000 tons.
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The investigation is also looking at another tax-avoidance scheme involving 2,500 containers recorded as carrying low-value items when they were, in fact, filled with expensive electronic equipment.
Although the investigation into what is now known as the “containers mafia” is still uncovering new pieces of what has come to be an intricate criminal puzzle, it has already revealed the participation of a large number of government officials, including three former customs directors.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although the size and complexity of this “containers mafia” is surprising, corruption within Argentina's ports is common and has allowed various criminal economies to flourish.
The large amount of resources required to effectively control the vast numbers of containers passing through ports daily and the potential for criminal earnings for corrupt officials make it an ideal vehicle for criminal activities.
In Argentina, the amount of containers passing through the country’s ports daily has increased by 22 percent in 2018, according to the latest report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe -- Cepal).
That, combined with a history of deep-seated corruption within customs, makes for a toxic combination that is particularly difficult to tackle.
As Judge Aguinsky rightly pointed out in a statement to La Nación, government officials cannot be expected to effectively "police" themselves.
He suggested a series of measures to try and tackle contraband and other illegal activities using container shipments, including deploying independent officials to carry out controls and using better scanning technology like body cameras.
The idea, although promising, would present its own challenges, particularly when it comes to the resources needed to effectively control more than 6,000 customs officials, prime targets for bribes by criminal organizations.
In addition to contraband, container shipments are often used to conceal illegal drugs. As InSight Crime has previously reported, ports in the Netherlands and Australia have been forced to step up controls after identifying such containers originating from Latin American ports.