Interpol targets pharmaceutical crime


Close to 20 million illicit pharmaceutical items were removed from the market in a regional operation co-ordinated by Interpol across the Middle East and North Africa.

Running until April, the operation coincided with the coronavirus pandemic and saw a trend in trafficking of items related to COVID-19. Among the seizures were: 61 000 respiratory masks and an artificial respirator in Morocco; 63 418 face masks and 360 sanitising products in Jordan; and 85 000 medical products including face masks, gloves, thermometers and medical glasses in Qatar.

The results confirm the trend observed under the global Operation Pangea, also run by INTERPOL, in March. The outbreak of coronavirus offers an opportunity for fast cash, as criminals take advantage of high demand for personal protection and hygiene products.

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 sale.

They reported seizures of a variety of medicines including anaesthetics, analgesics, antimalarial medicines, benzodiazepines (tranquilisers) and corticosteroids, as well as supplements, sexual stimulants and growth hormones. Medical products seized include 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 pharmaceutical crime and disrupting the activities of organised criminal groups who profit from it. The volume of illicit medicines and counterfeit medical products seized is a reminder of the extent of this global problem and the risk to public safety,” said Paul Stanfield, Interpol Director of organised and emerging crime.

Authorities in Iraq reported two major cases. In the first, officials seized 761 000 boxes of illicit medicines in seven shipping containers, with an estimated value of nearly US$ 2 million. In the second, authorities seized 400 boxes and nine 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 co-ordinate law enforcement efforts between police, customs and regulatory authorities,” said the Ministry of Interior, General Directorate for Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, Iraq.

In Kuwait, 16 seizures were reported totalling 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 way of financing activities.

Building on  the first phase of Operation Qanoon in 2018, seizures in the second phase were significantly higher: with around 20 million items seized in 2020 compared with 1.5 million in 2018.

Law enforcement officials in the region made notable side seizures of methamphetamine and Captagon of almost five million pills and tablets. While these narcotics were not in the specific remit of Operation Qanoon and not included in official results, they indicate the proliferation of this type of high stimulant street drug in the region. Captagon, an amphetamine, is widely associated with ISIL/Da’esh, both in terms of financing terrorist activities and 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 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 co-operation and actions.