The men, all Venezuelans, some of whom had to be rescued from the water when the vessels submerged were detained at Staubles Bay up to Sunday evening.
The incident has raised several questions, including why the Coast Guard did not allow the vessels named Frilay and El Cufi to dock at the Cedros port when the necessary paperwork was done and the proper procedure was followed.
Why were the vessels being taken to Staubles Bay? How did the vessels, which left Tucupita on Thursday with approximately 4,000 tonnes of copper, sink?
John Williams, owner of ABC Trinidad Customs Brokerage Company Limited is demanding answers.
He said his company ensured that the necessary 24-hour advance notice of the vessels’ arrival and other relevant details were provided to the Coast Guard, Immigration Department and Customs and Excise.
However, around 8 am on Friday the vessels were just a stone’s throw away from the Cedros jetty when they were intercepted by the Coast Guard.
Williams said they were initially told the vessels were detained because the port clearance documents from Venezuela did not specify that cargo was on board.
However, he said a manifest was sent to the Coast Guard and Customs via email informing them that the vessels were transporting copper.
“The Coast Guard is claiming they never received it is a lie because Customs received it. It is not even the Coast Guard’s responsibility to determine whether a vessel has cargo on it or not—that is the job of Customs and Excise.
They also have a Marine Interdiction Unit that deals with that. The Coast Guard’s job is to maintain and secure the maritime borders.
“The proper documentation was provided, is not that they tried to come into the country illegally, they followed the necessary process and procedures required to have vessel enter T&T for purpose of transacting business,” charged Williams.
He further claimed that the Coast Guard acted without informing the Customs and Immigration officials.
Williams said a coast guard officer said they following instructions from the National Security Ministry to intercept any vessels coming from Venezuela.
“He (the officer) said these people (Venezuelans) bringing in guns and drugs, but nothing like that were found on the vessels or the crew. The vessel was not red-flagged by Immigration or Customs stating cannot come into the country.
In my mind this is a breach in protocol, it tells me that any boat or ship can be stopped by Coast Guard and the crew could get beaten or assaulted. They cannot put these men in the Immigration Detention Centre or detain them because they did nothing wrong.”
Guardian Media was informed that neither Williams nor attorney Kelston Pope were allowed to speak with the Venezuelans at Staubles Bay.
Pope complained that he waited three hours before being informed that he will not be allowed to speak with the men. Williams said the men came here to sell the copper to buy food and other basic necessities to take back to their families but instead lost their cargo, boats and freedom.
Calling on National Security Minister Stuart Young to make clear the policy for Venezuelan vessels entering T&T, Williams said the shipping and customs fraternity was not informed of any change in the procedure.
Describing the treatment meted out to the Venezuelans as inhumane and unfair, he said: “You cannot be inhumane to people and beat people for no reason.
“This is not the first time this has happened. Within recent times they have been subjecting these Venezuelan vessels to that kind of treatment, particularly by the Coast Guard.”
Up to press time Guardian Media received no response from the Coast Guard on the matter.