It was on January 16 this year that Mark Laria, area port director for US Customs and Border Protection, revealed at a press conference in Norfolk, Virginia, the seizure of cocaine with a street value of up to US$100 million that had been imported into the US packed in cans of Trinidad Orange Juice. The shipment had originated in Trinidad.
For a week thereafter we were inundated with news about the investigation here in Trinidad. We were told that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was here; that local police were cooperating in the investigation; that a well-known businessman was soon to be arrested; then it was three well-known businessmen; then we learnt that the US authorities were seeking the extradition of these people and that the entire affair was shortly to be neatly wrapped up and gifted to the nation.
Then, when a few voices were raised querying some of the information that was being fed to the population, suddenly, the avalanche of news and information dried up. The last official statement on this matter came on March 16 when National Security Minister Gary Griffith said in a Sunday Express interview, “United States intelligence officials are still working jointly with the Transnational Organised Crime Unit and the Security Service Agency (SSA) on the matter”.
According to this report Mr Griffith also stated, “I can assure you that this matter cannot in any way be put under the carpet. Even if persons have that perception everybody will recall that US$100 million (in cocaine) landed on the US shores and that the US cannot close the door on that.”
But nothing Mr Griffith says on this matter can be trusted. This is the same Minister who in January reportedly told the Guardian that meetings were being held between local intelligence agencies and US agencies, including the DEA.
Then, on February 21, he told the Express: “All I can say — it will be improper of me to say if DEA agents are here. What I can state is that individuals who continue to mention all the number of DEA officials who turned up here, it was not Gary Griffith...”
Today not even the garrulous Mr Griffith is to be heard. Today there is only silence on the matter. An ominous, uncomfortable and foreboding silence. Today all we are left with, in spite of the early surfeit of information, are questions and concerns, and a sense of surreal bewilderment as to whether any of it really happened.
The fact is there is nothing we have heard about this case and this investigation that we can, with any degree of assurance, believe to be factual or true. We do not know if the DEA was ever here. We do not know if there was ever an investigation conducted by the DEA. We do not know if our local police are conducting or ever were conducting an investigation into this matter. We do not even know if the seizure of the drugs in the US really took place or if it was just part of some gigantic sting operation.
What we do know is that if in fact a person or persons unknown shipped US$100 million worth of cocaine to the US and 81 days after this became known not a single individual has been arrested and arraigned then we are in serious trouble.
Let me make myself perfectly clear. Our country, we know, is in an unholy mess. Our politics is a shambles, our economy is a bubble waiting to burst, our institutions are all collapsing around us, and everywhere we look around us those who should be setting standards of rectitude and integrity are being revealed as naught but guttersnipes.
But we know all of this and we know that all those problems are problems of our own making and are our challenges to solve. The point is that nation-building is a messy, problematic and painful thing and there are no guarantees given. And it may be that we will never build ourselves a viable and sustainable nation but at least there are those of us who understand that is the goal and are willing to do whatever we can, in whatever way we can, to bring it to reality.
For my part, notwithstanding the many depressing signs of decay and dissolution which surround us, I still have faith that the majority of citizens of this country are responsible people who strive to do their duty to the country and who have slowly but surely come to understand that there are no easy answers, no miracle solutions, no messianic saviours and that it is up to each one of us to assume responsibility for building our nation.
So, as bad as things may look at times, I have faith in the people of this country and I have faith in our future. Except, and it is a big exception, in circumstances in which our politicians and our police do not have the ability and the wherewithal to protect us from the narco-traffickers or our politicians and our police have already been compromised and corrupted by the narco-traffickers.
For in such circumstances the dream of a viable, sustainable and sovereign nation is already dead and all that we see about us—all the politics, business, civic affairs —is nothing but a matrix-like illusion and this country is nothing but a sanctuary for sharks.
I do not know, though I hope with all my heart that it is not so. But with each day that passes and no one is brought to account for putting cocaine in orange juice cans or at least we are given a reasonable explanation as to why no one is brought to account, then that hope grows fainter and fainter. Today is day 81 and counting…
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean