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United States authorities have seized an estimated US$100 million (approx TT$644 million) worth of cocaine concealed in cans of juice shipped from Trinidad to Norfolk, Virginia. Although the shipment was seized on December 20, the haul was only reported in US media on Thursday after officials held a media briefing and issued a press release. The find was described as the largest seizure in the port of Norfolk’s history.
The drugs were concealed in 700 cans that appear to be manufactured by the Citrus Growers Association, a subsidiary of SM Jaleel, and were being shipped in a container destined for New York. The cans contained a total of 732 pounds of cocaine. The cans containing the drugs also contained some liquid. Conflicting reports surfaced on whether the drugs were found following a tip-off or through a random search.
In a story carried in a Virginia paper, the Daily Press, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) area port director Mark Laria said officers used advanced technology to do an initial inspection of the 20-foot container, but after anomalies were discovered, they did a more extensive search, during which time the narcotics were found.
The report said they discovered the drugs by a “cold hit,” meaning officials received no specific intelligence about its presence. Rather, a CBP officer targeted the shipment for inspection using port knowledge, automatic targeting tools and information about recent smuggling trends, Laria said. However, US-based News Channel 3 reported that the container was flagged as soon as it left T&T, but the CBP could not check it until it got to the US.
This is the second time in as many months that SM Jaleel’s products have been implicated in a drug case. Royal Navy veteran Joromie Lewis, 33, of Gosport, Hampshire, died hours after drinking a cocaine-tainted 20-oz Pear D drink on December 5. This prompted the company to remove the product from local shelves. It does not export Pear D to the UK.
Griffith: We’re co-operating
Minister of National Security Gary Griffith said yesterday that T&T is collaborating with the US Drug Enforcement Agency to crack drug cartels. Although he refused to comment on the Norfolk drug bust because investigations were ongoing, Griffith admitted that such busts were the result of international collaboration. Saying intelligence was being shared in real time, Griffith revealed that 41 weapons had been seized in T&T within 16 days, along with 50 kilos of cocaine and 20 kilos of marijuana.
“Agreements have been signed with Venezuela and Colombia to stamp out the drug trade,” Griffith said. He added that T&T’s intelligence also passed information to the United Kingdom and the French customs, which led to the seizure of 800 kilos of cocaine recently.
Police Commissioner Stephen Williams did not answer his phone so the T&T Guardian could verify whether the police were assisting the US with the investigation. Head of the Organised Crime, Narcotics and Firearms Unit, acting Senior Supt Garrick also could not be reached for comment yesterday. Press specialist in the public affairs section of the US Embassy, Charleen Thomas, could not give details on whether the embassy was aware of the Norfolk seizure or if any arrests had been made.
The embassy’s Alexander Mc Laren said the Norfolk drug bust was a US-based case so questions should be raised with Virginia Dabbs, the CBP public affairs specialist for the State of Virginia. She could not be reached up to press time. Communications specialist at the Customs and Excise Department Alicia Charles also said she would investigate the origins of the shipment yesterday, but she too was unavailable up to press time.
Shipment not ours—SM Jaleel
SM Jaleel yesterday denied that the shipment was theirs. Asked if they shipped juice to the US, a company spokesman said Trinidad Juice is officially exported to the US all year round. “All export containers shipped in 2013 were received by the authorised food and beverage company, the last shipment being received in November. This December shipment was not made by SM Jaleel.”
Asked whether the company planned to withdraw the juices locally, the spokesman said: “There is no reason to withdraw the product. The US authorities have not issued a product recall, which they would if there was the slightest suspicion of public health concerns. “From the ABC report, cocaine was not in the juice. The tins which contained juice did not contain the tightly packed cocaine.
“SM Jaleel will continue to comply with the various legislations both locally and internationally relating to the production and exportation of products.” In a statement posted on its Web site, the company said: “It is common knowledge that the criminals involved in the drug trade have been using mechanisms to transport cocaine such as fruit, car parts, lumber, hardware etc.
“It now appears that someone may be trying to utilise our company’s product in this regard. We too have only just been recently informed of the situation that occurred almost a month ago, regarding the use of our TJC orange—and grapefruit-flavoured juice tins in the smuggling of cocaine into the US and have, to date, not been contacted by the relevant US authorities in connection with this matter. At present we have no knowledge or evidence of the details other than the press release from the US.
“We have already commenced our own internal investigation; however, we are not yet in a position to provide any further details at this time.” The company said neither the Narcotics Bureau nor T&T Customs were contacted by the US authorities, so this likely meant that it is a foreign issue that will be solved abroad.
No local recall
The Ministry of Health has not ordered the withdrawal of Trinidad Juices from local shelves. Chief Medical Officer Dr Collin Furlonge said the fruit juices cannot be recalled until investigations are complete. “I will in fact try and find out more about the matter before I make any recommendations about this,” Furlonge said. Director of the Chemistry Food and Drug Division Adrian Mc Carthy also said shelf recalls cannot be done without proper investigation.
“Usually we will be alerted through international health regulations about this matter. We are part of that network and we receive alerts from them concerning matters like this. We have not received any such directive,” Mc Carthy said.
Asked whether he believed a product recall was warranted, Mc Carthy admitted, “That is not something we can easily do. To make that recommendation is harsh until we investigate. We should have been alerted to this already. We knew of the incident in the UK but not this one. I cannot make a definitive statement until investigations are complete.”