The latest trick in drug-trafficking has been outsmarted by scientists, who have found a way of detecting cocaine in liquids, without opening the bottles.
Swiss researchers have shown that simple hospital scanners are not only useful in detecting tumours and cancers in the human body, but also uncovering cocaine dissolved in wine or other fluids.
By using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines used to do imaging of knees or of the brain, it is possible to trace cocaine in wine using a technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
The team of researchers from Lausanne and Geneva universities and university hospitals is led by Giulio Gambarota.
“You can sample as many bottles as you want without opening them. The goods are not damaged at all. The smugglers will not suspect they have been found out and can be traced more easily,” Gambarota told swissinfo.ch.
A recent report published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis by Gambarota and his team shows that methods such as radiography or fluoroscopy, which are used in airports, cannot identify the actual substance contaminating the wine, even though they can sense a foreign substance in the liquid.
In 2008, a study using a radiological approach showed the density of wine containing dissolved cocaine was different to that of wine.
However, similar densities were also found when the alcoholic beverage was tested for other dissolved substances such as sugar.
The technique could therefore be used as a screening to see whether cargo was contaminated, without determining what the nature of the contaminating substance was.
The researchers showed that MRI scanners could specifically identify cocaine in wine or other liquids, which means the cargo would not have to be opened to check the nature of the foreign substance.
This method is also very fast, as it allows you to see a gram of cocaine in a minute.
Over the past few years, there have been various cases of cocaine dissolved in alcohol.
In 2006, it was discovered that in the space of just over a year, 100 kilos of cocaine had been imported to Germany from the Dominican Republic in bottles containing rum.
Last year, a man in Britain died after drinking from a contaminated bottle of rum.
In Switzerland, the Federal Customs Office told swissinfo.ch there had been several cases of smuggling cocaine in wine.
Stefanie Widmer of the Customs Office said however that MRI scanners were not currently deployed. “We use technical instruments and also work with dogs – their noses are extremely sensitive - they are able to smell marijuana hidden in liquids.”
Gambarota warns though that even if the authorities were to begin using MRI scans, drug cartels may just keep one step ahead.
“Regardless of this new method, there are still new tricks every day, especially when cocaine is in the powder form; you can smuggle it in all sorts of containers, statues, etc.”
He does not know whether his and his team’s findings will change anything in drug-trafficking. “Some cartels have a turnover of billions of dollars and have access to scientists and all the technologies they own,” he warned.
A drugs mule can be paid up to SFr1,500 per visit to smuggle cocaine into Switzerland.
The mule can carry up to 1kg of cocaine packed into condoms, which are swallowed.
The amount of cocaine smuggled into Switzerland is unknown.
In 2008 the Federal Customs Office confiscated 145kg of cocaine, compared with 217kg in 2007.
In the 1980s a gram of cocaine cost between SFr500 and SFr600 in Switzerland, depending on its purity. Today it costs between SFr40 and SFr120, which is as little as SFr8 a line.
In Switzerland, 60% of the foreign drug traffickers arrested are West African, from a wide range of countries.
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