Europe’s Weakest Border? Smuggling Between Suriname and French Guiana
eyesonsuriname – by Douw den Helden
Stuart Codrington favors the direct approach. Within five minutes of our interview starting, the Surinamese border control officer grabs his gun, shoves it in his pocket, and takes us out of his tiny, air-conditioned office into the afternoon heat.
Soon, we are trundling along a badly maintained road in his white pickup. It’s a short trip to the edge of the Maroni River, which forms a natural border between Suriname and French Guiana, an overseas department of France. On the Surinamese side is the town of Albina. Across the river sits Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Codrington slows down as we turn onto a path running along the water.
“They smuggle diesel here,” he says, pointing at one area and explaining that smugglers buy fuel in Suriname and sell it at a higher price across the river in French Guiana.
A short distance down the road, Codrington points out other spots where smugglers cross the river with fuel and other goods like chickens, alcohol, and scrap metal.
“We don’t have enough people to catch them all,” he says.
Contraband smuggling on the Maroni River is nothing new, but cocaine trafficking into French Guiana has recently boomed. Overwhelmed, understaffed, and with corruption within their ranks, Surinamese authorities struggle to combat all kinds of illicit trade across what is possibly Europe’s weakest border.
Suddenly, the muscular customs officer makes a sharp turn and speeds toward the river. “They’re smuggling right now,” he shouts.
On the riverbank, a half-dozen young men, who all look between 15 and 20 years old, unload a wooden boat filled with pallets of thousands of cans of Coca-Cola. A second boat, loaded with Coca-Cola and beer, is arriving. Codrington jumps out of his car and tells them he’s seizing the lot.
The youths look defeated. A seized shipment means they won’t be paid for the day’s work.
Smuggling into Suriname is widespread. No tax or too little tax is paid on at least 75% of all imports, according to Ramon Fredrik, Suriname’s deputy head of customs. This is a significant loss of income for a country mired in a deep economic crisis.
“I’ve been here a year. I haven’t seen a single company that imports legally from French Guiana. But you do see a lot of products from French Guiana in Paramaribo,” Codrington says.
Smugglers caught crossing the Maroni River typically face light punishments that do little to deter illicit commerce in Suriname. And recruits like the youths Codrington apprehended seem to cross frequently.
SEE ALSO:Corruption, Cocaine, and Gold: Interview With Suriname’s President Santokhi
“Albina has a lot of drop-outs, youth who are left to fend for themselves,” a police officer stationed in Albina told InSight Crime, requesting anonymity since he lacked authorization to talk to reporters.
Statistics are not available, but the number of students leaving school before graduating increased dramatically during the pandemic, Dagblad Suriname reported in September 2021.
While customs officials are able to stop the occasional boat crossing the Maroni River, many others move uninspected. That afternoon, InSight Crime witnessed dozens of vessels transporting goods and people between Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni and Albina, some through the legal border crossing, most not.
A boat crossing from Suriname to French Guiana, loaded with barrels of fuel. Photo: InSight Crime
That boat is smuggling fuel to French Guiana,” says Codrington, pointing at a wooden vessel loaded with barrels crossing the river about 100 meters away. There’s nothing he can do about this one, as he has his hands full with the Coca-Cola seizure.
Border Control Challenges
In Albina, Codrington processed the captured youth and their contraband Coca-Cola. It took hours. And with only a handful of customs personnel available, operations like these are rare and random.
Sources at every level of authority in Suriname gave the same message: Authorities are overwhelmed and understaffed.
The biggest challenge is border control,” Colonel Werner Kioe a Sen, the head of Suriname’s armed forces, told InSight Crime. “Because of the economic crisis, [our security forces] don’t have large enough budgets, which impacts their efficiency.”
Justice and Police Minister Kenneth Amoksi echoed Kioe a Sen’s comments.
“We don’t have the means to monitor our borders like other countries do,” he told InSight Crime.
Corruption also hampers the enforcement capabilities of Suriname’s authorities in Albina.
Codrington told InSight Crime that, during the Coca-Cola seizure, he received a threatening phone call from a senior official in the area.
“He has his interests. He knows all about the smuggling around here, and there are certain people that he earns from,” Codrington said.
The police officer stationed in Albina said he had heard similar rumors but had seen no evidence. The official Codrington accused did not respond to InSight Crime’s requests for comment.
Two other Surinamese police officers, interviewed separately, told InSight Crime they had received threatening phone calls from different officials after arresting or fining smugglers.
“Bribery and corruption are deeply rooted within various government agencies,” a 2021 Surinamese government report found.
From Coca-Cola to Cocaine
The corridor sees much more than Coca-Cola. Albina’s porous border, limited state capacity, and deep-seated corruption make the town an appealing waypoint for cocaine trafficking to Europe.
In little more than a decade, cocaine trafficking from French Guiana to mainland France grew from a trickle to account for up to 30% of cocaine consumed in the European nation.
The drugs typically first reach the jungle of Suriname by small aircraft flown from Brazil, Colombia, or Venezuela and are then transported to Albina overland. Smuggling networks have apartments in Albina where drugs are stashed and coordinators receive human couriers.
“They pack them on their bodies, some of them prepare suitcases … but the most common method is swallowing,” Codrington says, referring to a method whereby passengers ingest the drugs, which are tightly wrapped in cellophane or other materials, then pass them naturally in Europe.
The economics provide traffickers with more incentives: A kilogram purchased in Albina costs approximately $3,800 to $4,500; in mainland France, its value is closer to $35,000.
Couriers need their passports stamped by the Surinamese military police in Albina before crossing to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, according to Codrington.
InSight Crime witnessed boatmen shouting to anyone passing to get their attention along Albina’s waterfront, trying to get as many people aboard as possible.
“If someone starts asking questions … they’ll just go to the next boat,” said Assaid, the Surinamese man with three golden teeth who was piloting the boat moving Coca-Cola.
From Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, couriers take a shared car to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, and usually fly to Paris the same day.
The use of this route has increased significantly in the past decade, partly in response to a clampdown on passengers on direct flights from Suriname to the Netherlands, a French parliamentary inquiry concluded in 2020.
The inquiry estimated that cocaine arriving from French Guiana supplied 15% to 20% of the cocaine consumed in France in 2020, from near zero a decade earlier.
Some independent experts think the figure could be even higher. David Weinberger, an associate research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), told InSight Crime in October that up to 30% of cocaine destined for mainland France flows through French Guiana.
SEE ALSO: France Dealing with Influx of Cocaine from Caribbean Territories
But while the scale of cocaine trafficking across the Suriname-French Guiana border is difficult to estimate due to a lack of seizure data, seizures on the French side suggest flows could be in the multi-ton range.
Authorities in French Guiana seized 982 kilograms of cocaine in 2022, 80% of which was set to leave Cayenne’s Felix-Eboué Airport, French customs official Richard Marie said at a May 2 press conference.
Human drug couriers appear to make up a substantial proportion of air travelers from Cayenne to Paris’ Orly Airport, which services the only direct commercial flights from French Guiana.
A February 2023 report by the French Senate noted that in 2022, 30% of passengers who were notified of drug checks on their flights a day before departure canceled their flights or were no-shows.
Cocaine trafficking dynamics have begun to change in recent months following a crackdown by French authorities, which started screening all passengers departing from Felix-Eboué Airport in October.
The number of human couriers arrested at Orly Airport in Paris has fallen dramatically due to the stepped-up security, French prosecutor Yves Le Clair said in the May 2 press conference. He claimed the new measures became necessary after Dutch authorities implemented a similar crackdown to stem cocaine trafficking from Suriname to the Netherlands.
The ‘mule’ phenomenon exploded in French Guiana when the Dutch carried out 100% control at Amsterdam Schiphol airport,” Le Clair said.
Smugglers appear to be adapting to the new security measures by sending fewer human couriers who have swallowed the drug while increasingly trying to hide cocaine in the suitcases of unsuspecting passengers, according to Marie, the customs official.
Similar dynamics have been seen in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. The individual quantities found on couriers, while remaining small, are increasing. At the customs checkpoint along the road between the town and Cayenne, French police seized 5.1 kilograms of cocaine from one man in March 2023, setting a new local record.
A Futile Battle
Back in Albina, Codrington works the phone and continues to process the youth and the contraband Coca-Cola. While he is distracted, the same youth who the official stopped make up for their loss by hiding a few of the contraband crates on the riverbank, out of sight of Codrington.
The officer has a lot to do. The seized goods have to be unloaded onto shore and then onto a truck. He phones for logistical assistance, and soon three soldiers holding assault weapons arrive in a small boat to escort the vessel to the customs office.
The young men unloading the boat are just trying to make a living, Codrington says. He lets them go.
Codrington is not as lenient with Assaid, the smuggler.
Assaid claims Codrington is messing him around. He says he was not smuggling and that the Coca-Cola was destined for a mining settlement upstream. Still, Assaid faces a fine of up to 30 times the import fee, a prison sentence if he does not pay, and the possible confiscation of his boat.
The financial rewards of shipping goods across the river are meager, according to Assaid. He says the boat owner paid him around $300 to bring the two boats across the Maroni River. But Assaid says he used $60 to pay for the fuel and crew.
Codrington later told InSight Crime that the soda was actually intended for Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, and went there when it was released from custody. He let the smuggler go after he paid the import fee.
Since InSight Crime’s visit in October, Codrington has gained an extra customs official. He said that the additional personnel has led to an uptick in contraband seizures of goods such as mopeds, beer, and chicken. No cocaine, though, and overall statistics remain unavailable.
And every time he makes a seizure, Codrington said, the senior official is still on the phone, looking to get him fired.
*Additional reporting by Alessandro Ford