Last July, a North Korean-flagged bulk carrier steamed through the Caribbean Sea en route to Wonson, DPRK, via the Panama Canal. Queuing at the Manzanillo International Terminal, Panamanian officials seized the ship on reports that it was transporting illegal drugs. They found much more than that. Buried under a cargo of 250,000 bags of sugar-and in contravention of UN Security Council sanctions-they discovered two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine air defense missiles, two Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 fighter planes and other prohibited items. It was not the first time this vessel was transporting illicit goods to and from North Korea. In the three years prior to this seizure, the same ship had been caught conveying a wide variety of contraband from heroin substitutes, to counterfeited alcohol and cigarettes, and large caches of ammunition for AK-47s through various ports around the globe.
While the July operation was a clear law enforcement success, the incident is indicative of a wider dilemma facing governments today: a growing array of interconnected security challenges, facilitated by transnational organized criminals, exploiting a global supply chain that does not respect national borders or stove-piped policy responses. The numbers speak for themselves:
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