“We always need connections…paperwork not important once you have connections, paperwork not important, they are only on paper…they can always be manipulated…”
– Singapore ozone-depleting substances (ODS) dealer
When it comes to getting insights into what criminals think, EIA and our partners are in a pretty enviable position.
Our undercover investigators spend weeks at a time in the field, often in remote and dangerous places, rubbing shoulders with environmental criminals. Getting to know these people and their worlds. Gathering intelligence, developing leads, responding to opportunities and threats as they come up. Click here to read a previous blog by one of our investigators.
In the process, when our undercover investigators speak one-on-one with traders, create bonds, convince them of their authenticity…that in itself generates a wealth of information about how the illegal trade is conducted.
Who’s buying, who’s selling, what tricks to use to evade detection, and what the stakes are (or are not…) if you get caught.
“…the government regulation will be avoided. Anyway, you are taking the small risk to earn big profits.”
– Chinese ODS import/exporter
Often, the information gained doesn’t just implicate the trader who’s spilling the beans. The web of complicity can extend to police contacts who should be enforcing the law – but instead tip off the traders before inspections take place; dodgy Customs contacts who’ll “facilitate” the safe passage of a shipment…even government officials have been directly implicated in the illegal trade.
Of course there are people who’ll shake their heads and say, “That’s a criminal you’re talking to. You can’t believe what they say!”
“I think it’s better if you know who I am. I’m a law officer, I’m a policeman. Beside a policeman, I am also a businessman.”
– Policeman (and merbau smuggler) in Indonesia
EIA uses specialist investigators. Cover is carefully planned, so it’s totally convincing.
Questions are open, so the traders talk of their own volition.
And verification is crucial. In presenting often explosive investigation findings, things have to be water-tight.
Of course you’re not to know that this new “friend” is actually undercover EIA.
But it’s often precisely because these people are criminals that we should at least listen to what they say – take it as a starting point from where to investigate further. Whilst they can be excellent at describing their activities, they’ll often highlight the factors that make it all too easy for them to continue.
“…(Customs) need money also… all the people still need money. It goes up to the top.”
– Merbau dealer in Indonesia
It’s been said before, but anyway…crime is good at self-preservation. A criminal’s response to enforcement activity (like the interception of cargo) will be to adapt, necessarily at the drop of a hat. What was true of smuggling methods a year ago may since have been abandoned in favour of a different way of doing things. Likewise, as we’ve shown, the end markets can change. For investigators, rather than labouring under misconceptions and coming up short, keeping up to date with these changes is essential.
And while stats can give you an overview and insights, they can’t paint a picture the way a trader does when he describes the “many hands” through which a tiger skin passes – from when it’s skinned from the carcass in India and travels thousands of miles north into China.
But if enforcement agencies don’t see the value in conducting covert operations and engaging traders, how is anyone – including policy makers – except the criminals to know how things really work?
In 2009, traders voiced anticipation at the forthcoming Chinese Year of the Tiger: more demand for tiger skin = higher profits. Tasteless, frightening, but EIA listened. With the species already on the brink, identifying additional, future threats is crucial.
We recommend enforcement agencies speak to one another, share information, and collaborate – both domestically and internationally.
But enforcement agencies might also speak to criminals. Not only when a suspect is in custody, but proactively go out into the field, task covert investigations, dig deep, and hear what these people have to say. In terms of understanding the illegal trade – and saving species – the information gained can be gold dust.
The same information can also, and probably will, reveal uncomfortable truths. But if those truths are too hard to face, or believed to be insurmountable…well then forests, tigers, elephants – all of us – might as well accept defeat.