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De ‘bust’ buss

By Raffique Shah

 Within days of the announcement by US authorities that they had intercepted 700-odd pounds of cocaine shipped from Trinidad to Norfolk, Virginia, and the well-publicised arrival here of a number of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, I sensed that something had gone awfully wrong.

As the media frenzy rose to frenetic proportions—Messrs Big facing imminent arrest, extradition underway, DEA interrogates Customs, and so on—the missing links in a successful drug bust were too glaring. Based on my experience (as a journalist, I had investigated and written on several big narcotics interceptions in the 1990s), I concluded that little or nothing would come out of this seizure.

In other words, de bust buss!

A successful drug bust usually begins with the arrests of several lynchpins, sometimes kingpins, at the end-user side of the market. In the instant case, for example, the first we in Trinidad should have known about the Norfolk seizure was that a syndicate in New York had been busted, with the importer and several distributors arrested and facing charges.

Simultaneously, we’d learn of the quantity of drugs seized, and its origin. And if the DEA and local police were on the ball, we’d hear that persons in Trinidad and maybe Venezuela had already been picked up as investigations intensified. DEA agents would then arrive, armed with sufficient evidence to seek the extradition of those responsible for exporting the cocaine.

Closure would usually come within months, with every-man-jack sent to prison for lengthy terms, and possibly a bonus in the form of the confiscation of ill-gotten gains from their bank accounts or properties.

In other words, success is not about seizures, although that is useful. It must include arrests and successful prosecution of a syndicate (well, it’s hardly ever a cartel), and hopefully the dismantling of its operations.

These things did not happen in this case. Instead, the US authorities made a big song and dance about the discovery of the illicit drugs, end of story. Our officials, seizing the opportunity to appear to be doing something to stem the flow of drugs, hint at having collaborated with the DEA.

The unpalatable truth is this operation has been an unmitigated disaster. In fact, for many years our drug interdiction programme has yielded only a string of stupid ‘mules’ with cocaine in their stomachs or suitcases, the occasional discovery of a few kilos of drugs, but never the arrest of anyone that resembled a drug dealer.

It is not as if this country is not one of the major transhipment points for cocaine destined for the North American and European markets. The Norfolk seizure, one-third-tonne, is an indication that we ‘big in the dance’. How many similar shipments passed through that particular port before the US authorities made a breakthrough? What’s happening at other entry points to that lucrative market, and in Europe?

A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) research paper on the Trans-Atlantic cocaine trade, dated April 2011, concluded that the Andean countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) produced 1,100 tonnes in 2009. Allowing for interceptions and seizures along the trade routes, the authors estimated that 123 tonnes eventually reached European consumers and 179 tonnes North Americans (mainly the USA).

The estimated street value of this combined 302 tonnes was put at US $70 billion! That works out to around $230 million a tonne. In the Norfolk seizure, US authorities valued one-third tonne at $100 million, or $300 million a tonne.

Bearing in mind this latter number is the street value, we can safely assume that the trans-shippers in Trinidad cream off at least 25 per cent of that, say US $75 million a tonne. Of the estimated 300 tonnes traded, if 5.0 per cent passes through Trinidad, it means US$1.1 billion, or TT$7.0 billion, is generated, and likely laundered, here.

If we are conservative in the extreme and assume only one per cent (three tonnes) passes this way, we are talking close to $2.0 billion a year of cocaine dollars circulating in the system.

That’s a lot of money in a country where government revenue for the current fiscal year is estimated at $55 billion and expenditure around $60 billion. Put in another perspective, think of what US$1.0 billion means to any small island Caribbean country whose budgetary expenditure and revenue may not exceed $3.0 billion.

Put bluntly, does it not make sense for any government in the Caribbean to turn a blind eye to the illicit operations of ‘Messrs Big’, given their contributions to the economy? In Trinidad’s case, cocaine dollars may fall behind only oil, gas, petrochemicals, services and manufacturing. 

I am not suggesting that ‘somebody letting the cocaine pass’ as David Rudder sang many years ago. But if criminal enterprises can conduct canning businesses, mimicking legitimate manufacturers, and export cocaine via containerised cargo, something is rotten somewhere.

Worse, on several occasions the authorities have found large quantities of drugs in import containers, yet no one has been charged. The only ‘drug criminals’ jailed in this country are ‘coke-heads’ and two-bit pushers. That stinks.

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