Differing Security Contexts in Global Logistics

Differing Security Contexts in Global Logistics

First published: February 2023

Picture of Danny Ramon
Danny Ramon

Intelligence & Response Manager

Even without geopolitical events, cargo crime varies in its targets, methods and contributing factors around the globe. Thanks to technology and the gradual shift of attitudes within the shipping industry, cargo visibility has continued to improve in recent years. Now that shippers are able to access real-time information on the location of their cargo, the next challenge is to understand the security environment it is moving through, the risks specific to that region, and how those risks change as it moves through the supply chain.

A knowledge of these differences will help to avoid the mistake of thinking cargo crime is the same around the world. Knowing what cargo is in demand and where as well, what methods criminals use and what local law enforcement will do will help create a far more accurate risk profile to craft a more effective security response.​

Differing Methods of Cargo Theft

The methods used by cargo thieves are shaped by the environment they operate. An example of this is the prevalence of armed hijackings in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, where the level of violence would shock a European security manager.

Although hijackings have been on the rise in recent years in parts of Europe, in Brazil, Mexico and South Africa they are by far the most prevalent method of
cargo theft. Like other South and Central American 
countries, Brazil has an extremely high rate of violent crime due to the well-armed and powerful organised
crime groups operating the drugs trade. As in Mexico, 
where cartels control drug production, smuggling and people trafficking the use of violence is normalised.

Similarly poverty, severe economic inequality, gang culture and high corruption make violent armed hijackings – often with police collusion – a significant threat in South Africa.


In contrast to this level of violence, cargo theft in the Russian federation is comparatively tame, where more sophisticated frauds have come to prominence.
According to data from TT Club the most common 
method – over 94% of fraud incidents in 2020 – is to impersonate the driver on the phone to the broker
while redirecting the truck to a location other than 
the documented delivery address and simply unloading the cargo. This method is so successful it appears to have reduced other forms of cargo theft to the point that pilferage and container theft is rare, even over the vast distances from China and Eastern Russia. Further
East in China and India, high levels of corruption with facilities staff and often lax access controls make thefts from warehouses and production facilities far more
common, although thefts from vehicles, including while 
in motion, do happen.

In Europe, all methods of cargo theft are present. While far from the violence of South and Central America, hijackings occur across Europe and are reportedly to
be linked to established mafia organisations. Southern 
Italy, with a heavy presence of mafia groups such as the N’drangheta, Camorra and Sacra Corona Unita is one of several hotspots where hijackings are both violent and sophisticated, where drivers are assaulted and jammers used to block alerts from reaching security
personnel. Spectacular in-transit heists have also been 
orchestrated by the Romanian “Acrobats’’ gang that was convicted in early 2022 following a series of high-speed
thefts on French motorways. Despite recent TAPA data 
showing a rise in facilities theft, theft from trucks is the most prolific form of cargo crime, possibly in part
because of the continued widespread use of curtain- 
sider trailers across Europe, which make opportunist slash-and-grab thefts easy.

In the United States, where pilferage from insecure parking locations is the overriding concern and, despite the high degree of gun ownership and violence across much of the country, armed hijackings and violence are relatively uncommon. The degree to which drivers may be complicit in theft is hard to judge, but poor worker conditions and the difficulties of catching and prosecuting suspected insider thefts under U.S. laws mean a high degree of driver collusion seems likely.

Types of Cargo Targeted

While ease of access is a factor, especially in opportunist thefts, market demand and the price the stolen goods can command are a major factor in determining what cargoes are targeted. This price does not necessarily correspond to the retail value of the product stolen, and the assumption that a cargo with a high retail value is automatically more desirable and at greater risk is not always true. While there are some constants around the world on the types of cargo stolen, there are local market demands that lead to cargo’s being more at risk in some regions, and so-called “hot
products” vary around the world.

Although there are no detailed statistics for the types of cargo stolen, food and beverage products are reported amongst the most stolen items globally. In deprived
regions this is no doubt driven by the demand for 
cheaper necessities, but more widely it is influenced by the ease with which such products can be disposed of via the grey and black markets. The lack of traceability and the speed of consumption of food products mean thieves can sell them on for a high proportion of their retail cost, making them a lucrative and low-risk option.

In some cases, such as medical equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic or certain high-demand electronics, particularly around Christmas, a stolen cargo can
demand far in excess of its retail value for thieves with 
access to a suitable market.
With the possible exception of some high-demand items 
like gaming consoles, electronics are not always as in demand as commonly assumed as despite the high value the goods carry as the local market may not have the demand. New security measures can also affect the resale value of stolen electronic goods. The resale value of stolen iPhone’s reportedly dropped significantly with the introduction of iOS7 in 2013, as the improved security of the new operating system made them more difficult to register and use when illegitimate.

One area where electronics are at higher risk is the United States, where electronics – along with auto parts – often feature in the top categories of goods stolen. This is likely due to a strong consumer culture and high vehicle ownership that doesn’t exist in poorer or less stable parts of the world. The increase in eFencing – the resale of stolen goods through online auction or retail sites – has increased the market thieves can sell their goods to in developed countries. Rather than selling a load of stolen electronics to a fence for 30% of their retail value, they can be sold individually to the end consumer for much closer to the retail price.

Not all stolen cargo is sold on directly. A recent example from Brazil involved cargo thieves in Rio de Janeiro stealing a cargo of tyres near Campo Grande and exchanging them with a drug dealer in São Paulo for cocaine. The dealer then sold the goods at market rate to an unsuspecting legitimate business. That would-be drug dealers can use this process to obtain drugs without the need for start-up capital will likely serve as further enticement for cargo theft and could well be a model we see exported to other regions and criminal enterprises.

Worker Conditions

The working conditions of those doing the moving, which have a significant bearing on industrial action, driver shortages and insider risk, is often overlooked. For example, to those unfamiliar with it the U.S. trucking industry may appear to be dysfunctional. Over 80% of carriers are small operators with less than six trucks, and many
drivers are classed as independent operators without the workplace perks and regulations of an employee, despite 
working exclusively for one employer. Low wages, unpaid wait-times, high overheads and long hours – along with an individualistic culture – contribute to high staff turnover, and increases the likelihood of drivers to collude in theft or comply with carrier policies like double-loading or going significantly off route.

In the European Union working conditions are more closely regulated. The introduction of the Mobility Package in 2020 and 2022 aimed at improving working and social conditions, limit working hours and minimum rest times for drivers. The industry is also dominated by fewer, larger carriers, resulting in greater efficiency and visibility in the broker market than its more opaque U.S. counterpart.

Variable Policing

The police and security response to cargo theft is as variable as the methods of criminals. While Europe has far more secure parking than most other regions, the continued lack is being addressed with increased funding by the EU Commission to create secure parking every 100km along the transport network. However, despite competent police with low levels of corruption, arrests and prosecutions for cargo theft are low, even if high-profile gangs are sometimes busted. This is partly due to bureaucratic barriers and the many different police jurisdictions a cargo will
pass through as it moves freely within the EU, as a police force in one country will care little for a theft that occurred 
in another, especially if the location of the theft is unclear.

In those countries where cargo theft – and crime in general – is more violent, policing is far more militarised. When cargo crime in the Rio de Janeiro area got out of control in 2018 following a three-fold increase in hijackings since 2015, the Brazilian government deployed troops to aid police in combating the problem. The over 400,000-strong Polícia Militar are regarded as military auxiliaries and subject to military regulations, and over 6,000 people were killed by police in Brazil in 2020 and 2021, with allegations of police brutality and racism becoming commonplace.

Corruption has a significant influence on policing in different countries. While petty extortion by police corruption is a contributing factor in trucker protests in the developing world, in Mexico – which Transparency.org ranked 124th of 180 in its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index – entire police forces have been arrested for corruption. Some Mexican police not only take bribes to leave criminals alone like in other countries but have been found to be employed by the cartels, even fighting each other when their interests collide. Successive governments have failed to tackle the endemic corruption within local police forces, where low pay and a lack of government support and training make the bribes offered by cartels and other criminal organisations highly attractive.

Concluding Thoughts

These are just a few examples of the different criminal and security environments that logistics chains operate in. As criminal groups and their methods grow increasingly sophisticated not only in their use of technology, fraud and violence but also their targeting of cargoes to fulfil specific demands, those concerned with logistics security must make better use of intelligence and demand more detailed data to fully understand the context their cargoes pass through. Knowing not only where your cargo is but also which are likely to be targeted, who will target them, how, and what sort of security response can be relied upon is the necessary next step towards further improving logistics security and supply chain resilience.

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