Zurich customs gear up for festive season

Spot checks are regularly carried out at Zurich airport

Christmas is a busy period for customs officers at Zurich airport, with many passengers carrying the most unusual festive “gifts” in their luggage.

This content was published on December 7, 2004 minutes

Spot checks have uncovered suitcases full of spiders, air-dried rats, and even an ape’s hand.

Contraband comes in many shapes and sizes, and customs officers undergo a total of six years of theoretical and practical training to prepare them for the job of rooting out smugglers.

Customs chief Miroslaw Ritschard has worked at Zurich airport for many years and is now head of the freight section.

He showed me the customs museum, full of confiscated artefacts. A shrunken head, pickled snakes, a stuffed eagle and brightly coloured corals all grace the spotlit glass display cabinets.

These are banned imports under Cites, the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which aims to protect certain endangered species from over-exploitation.

By the end of September 2004, customs officers at the airport had intercepted 273kg of ivory, 201 live animals, 200 spiders, 44 stuffed animals and nearly 27kg of corals.


Narcotics searches are carried out in collaboration with the police.

Around 80 per cent of hard drugs imported into Switzerland are from South America, and they are smuggled in many different ways – sometimes packed around the body under clothes, in bottles disguised as alcohol, or in shoes and suitcases.

One man even had cocaine packets sewn into his wig. More than 300 kilos of class A drugs have been intercepted so far this year.

And the 160 officers at the airport have a whole raft of sophisticated equipment for identifying illegal drugs, including the ion scan machine, which detects the molecules that make up drugs like cocaine.

Spotting fakes

Counterfeit goods are stored temporarily in a warehouse in the freight department, a veritable Aladdin’s cave.

Cardboard boxes overflow with fake Gucci handbags and Rolex watches, the latest models of Adidas trainers and Lacoste t-shirts – most of them originating from Asia and the Far East. The copies are frequently difficult to distinguish from the originals, even by experts.

Ritschard says it’s easier to spot fake watches. “High quality watches have mechanical parts, whereas the copies are battery operated,” he explained.

It’s estimated that 40 million copies of Swiss watches are smuggled every year, costing the watch industry SFr800 million ($704 million).

The contraband enforcement team carries out spot checks on two per cent of all freight. They are also allowed to study the shipping papers, and ask the forwarding agent to come to customs.


In most cases, the courts decide what to do with counterfeits. Often they are simply handed to the police to dispose of as they see fit.

Counterfeit brand name handbags, shoes and clothing are destroyed, while collectables may be auctioned. In August 2004, 100,000 fake Swiss watches were crushed and recycled.

Narcotics are always destroyed. Every few months, a police officer takes a full suitcase down to the local incinerator. An inspector is there to make sure that every single gram on the list goes into the furnace.

Snakeskin boots, crocodile handbags and items made of ivory are confiscated and offered to museums for their collections.

Live endangered species are generally sent to zoos in Switzerland. But the 800 spiders found in a suitcase had to make the long journey back to Mexico.

Customs duties from Zurich airport generate almost one million francs per day. Their work may be important for the economy, but tax collectors are traditionally unpopular with the public.

“We have a bad image, even though so much of our time is spent trying to protect animals or the public,” Ritschard points out.

“Even so, it’s a very interesting job. You never know what’s going to happen next.”

swissinfo, Julie Hunt at Zurich airport

Key facts

46,000 passengers pass through Zurich airport every day.
3,200 people were fined or imprisoned in 2003.
Customs duties amount to SFr358 million per year for this airport.
In 2003 there were 130 Cites seizures.

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In brief

Customs officers at Zurich airport are gearing up for masses of passengers over Christmas.

They have to be particularly vigilant as some passengers may be smuggling narcotics and even live animals in their luggage.

It’s the officers’ job to stop them. This is done by searches, checking papers and using sophisticated equipment.

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