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Shipping documents relating to the export of local juices to Virginia were seized yesterday by United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and local law enforcement officials, as they closed in on the suspects believed to be behind the estimated TT $.6 billion cocaine seizure last month. A prominent T&T businessman, sources said, had also been identified as a prime suspect and a statement of case “with all the evidence to support an extradition request has been drafted by the US authorities.” The US probers, sources added, have been working independent of local investigators. Among the documents seized were a bill of landing which would have named the consignee, the exporter and a full description of the goods and its intended destination. The drug was seized by United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers at the Port of Norfolk on December 20 but the haul was not announced until last Thursday. The cocaine was being smuggled into the US in over 700 cans mixed into a shipment of Trinidad juice products which are manufactured by Citrus Growers Association.
Sources from the Organised Crime, Narcotics and Firearms Bureau (OCNFB), who are working closely with Customs and Excise Division, yesterday said the investigation had reached a “sensitive stage” with a list of suspects already complied. They said they were also not ruling out the possibility that employees of the Customs and Excise Division may be involved, noting that the cocaine-smuggling operation was “well organised” and involved “major players” with “far-reaching tentacles.” Civilians, who also handle large volumes of paper work, are also being looked at as possible suspects. Speaking on the CNC3’s Morning Brew yesterday, former head of the Central Authority, attorney David West, said when the container was seized it would have been kept confidential and officers from the DEA would have then gathered their information and research. He said the fact that the DEA was involved was a signal they had a good idea of their intended target and an extradition request would be made when their probe was completed.
Saying the extradition procedures was not lengthy West added: “The longest part is in the investigation and if the DEA is carrying out the interviews it is just to wrap up.” He said one of the key issues which must be examined was how the drugs entered T&T, since the country was not a manufacturer of cocaine. He added: “For that amount of drugs to come in something has to be wrong somewhere. These drugs are mainly bought on credit and only when it is sold the manufacturer gets his money. “So what is going to happen now is there is going to be a huge fall out because somebody has lost out on a big payday.” West said all the local agencies needed to work together to stamp out the drug trade. “This is a classical case of trans-national organised crime. You have drugs leaving one continent, coming into Trinidad and to be exported to the US.
“It is very complex and we have to have all the agencies working together and they must have competent persons working in them so they can analyse the data and make the proper recommendations to the authorities that be.” He also questioned why the local authorities did not seize the drugs if they were aware of it. Contacted yesterday, National Security Minister Gary Griffith said people were making all sorts of comments on the matter but they had no knowledge of law enforcement. He said his aim was to “go after the big fish” and the bust was a testimony of the collaborative efforts of local and international partners. Griffith said he had not yet been briefed by the DEA on the investigation but said the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) and Transnational Organised Crime Unit (TOCU) was also involved in the probe.
In a press release yesterday, shipping company, Seaboard Marine, maintained it had a proud history of integrity in its international operations. “In complete agreement with our much-valued client, SM Jaleel, Seaboard Marine reconfirms that it operates exclusively out of the port of Point Lisas and not the Port of Port-of-Spain. “To corroborate and reiterate what has been stated by our client, such shipments transported by Seaboard Marine vessels are not landed in Norfolk, Virginia, as we do not offer a service to this port,” the release said.
Bharat meets stakeholders
Trade Minister Vasant Bharath also met yesterday with senior officials of the T&T Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA) and ExporTT Ltd to discuss the issue. The ministry’s manager of corporate communications, Yolande Agard-Simmons, said discussions were held on ensuring all items for export were thoroughly checked and verified, via the certificate of origin and the possibility of more rigorous verification exercises by Customs and Excise. “Lengthy discussions were held on implementing measures that will mitigate against such reoccurrences, while in no way inhibiting trade and ensuring that the reputation of our local manufacturers is protected from unscrupulous criminal elements,” Agard-Simmons said. A release from the ministry added that stakeholders said a robust plan of action would be developed to protect local manufacturers and the country’s international image. It added that investigations had revealed SM Jaleel was not responsible for the shipment. “The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Investment, through its agency ExporTT Ltd, confirms that the shipment in question was not exported by our local manufacturer, Trinidad Juice Company Ltd, and reaffirms its commitment in supporting the legitimate operations of all local manufacturers.” It added that another meeting would be held with more stakeholders, including representatives of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Comptroller of Customs, tomorrow.