* File photo by Simon Jones. Entry point: The container docks are often where drugs and guns find their way into Bermuda.
* File photo by Simon Jones. Entry point: The container docks are often where drugs and guns find their way into Bermuda.
Cargo ships that bring in around 400 containers loaded with goods each week are the "weakest link" in the fight against gun and drug smuggling.

Customs officers say they currently face an "impossible task" in screening the weekly shipments that bring everything from household furniture to supermarket supplies to the island.

And police believe drugs and guns are being hidden inside furniture and appliances loaded into containers, many of which go unchecked by inspectors.

Customs and shipping firms estimate that a maximum of one in 10 of the containers that arrive weekly on ships like the Oleander are inspected.

A series of six shootings in the past six weeks culminating with the murder of Kumi Harford, who was shot 15 times as he drove home from a night out, has fuelled speculation about the amount of firearms on the island and how they get here.

Police do not have exact figures for how many guns are out there.

But they are becoming increasingly concerned at the number of thugs who have access to firearms, which they believe are arriving in the country alongside drug shipments.

The docks are thought to be the principal point of entry.

"When they bring in drugs they add a couple of firearms - there is very little extra risk involved," one senior officer told the Bermuda Sun this week.

William Pearman, acting Collector of Customs, said it was currently an almost impossible task for his team to inspect every container that arrives in Bermuda.

He said huge progress had been made in containing drug and weapons smuggling through cruise ships and bonded courier firms like Fed Ex and DHL, with almost 100 per cent of packages scanned.

But he admits that less than 10 per cent of the estimated 430 containers that arrive weekly on the Oleander, Bermuda Islander and Somers Isle are inspected.

The cargo-ships will remain a concern until hi-tech x-ray equipment is installed at the docks.

"We are seeing shootings almost weekly.

"The guns are here so they came in somehow without detection...

"The question is how did they get here. We have to look at the weakest link and in my view because of the sheer volume of the containers, that could be the weakest link."

Their job was made tougher when the responsibility for stripping the containers was taken away from the Stevedoring Services firm which runs the docks. The containers are now transferred direct to the company responsible for importing them and searched on property.

But the loophole will be slammed shut when a multi-million dollar X-ray machine - basically a giant version of the bag scanners travellers go through at airports - is put into action.

"Each and every container will be X-rayed to determine whether we send it to a manual search area on the docks," said Mr. Pearman, who expects the machine to be operational by August.

The $3m dollar scanner will be able to process boats and cars as well as containers of up to 48 feet in length.

"The only way we can address this properly is through the use of technology.

"It is difficult using just human resources to try to plug the gap."

He said the technology was so powerful it could detect if one object was hidden inside another and pick-up the outline of a gun, even if it was stashed inside a television.

The image scans can also be retained by customs bosses to review staff performance and guard against corruption.

Mr. Pearman declined to reveal statistics on how many guns had been intercepted this year.

But he added: "It is fair to say that what we are seeing and what we are intercepting reflects what is actually happening. There are shootings almost weekly so that does suggest they are finding ways to bring them in...

"They try every method that is known and some that are not known to import it [contraband]."

He said the Government was very aware of the problem and had been working with Customs to close a number of other gaps in Bermuda's border control.

Mr Pearman believes the new scanning equipment will help end the practice of smuggling guns on container ships.

But he said the 'million dollar question' was how to deal with private yachts.

It is understood that a common method of smuggling is for yachts passing by the island to transfer shipments to local boats who then return to port from a day-trip, unchecked by customs.

"We have information that consignments of drugs arrive by sea - we are cognizant of that fact and we are involved in an ongoing discussion on how to deal with it effectively and efficiently," he added.

What do you think? Send feedback to editor Tony McWilliam: tmcwilliam@bermudasun.bm.