Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fuelling evil

 Between the diesel racket and the illegal quarrying, the country sits on a $10 billion problem—a big number as the Minister of Finance Larry Howai fine-tunes his next budget. Beyond the massive loss of revenues from taxes and royalties, these illegal activities form part of underground criminal activities influencing other forms of lawlessness, and battles for control and silence have led to murders. Minister Howai may once again set the tone but lack of enforcement keeps the racketeering going.

It is critical that in advance of his next budget, Mr Howai works with the ministers of energy and national security. The illegal diesel trade is normally linked to the underhand sale of the fuel to power fishing and other vessels. A more potent element of the trade is the transport of the fuel by reconfigured fishing vessels to South America, where diesel is likely used in the manufacture of cocaine. In exchange these vessels return with guns and cash, and fuel upstream criminal activities. Ministers Ramnarine and Griffith should be concerned. 

Another element of the trade is linked to a 2012 New York Times’ report on the emergence of diesel-powered submarines for cocaine transshipment across Caribbean waters. The report highlighted a fear that trafficking networks were moving away from so-called fast boats to semi-submersible and fully submersible vessels that can “surreptitiously carry many more tons of drugs”. In 2012, Trinidad and Tobago’s Chief of Defence Staff denied unmanned submarines were operating in its maritime space. Still, he did not exclude the possibility that local diesel was ultimately used to power these vessels outside the country’s maritime area.

Of course, the Ministry of Energy was visible in “diesel busts” in Sea Lots in 2012 and St Helena in 2014. But when combined, busts by law enforcement scratch less than one per cent of the illegal diesel trade and these busts have not tackled the continued sales in breach of the revised legislation, the illegal bunkering business on the high seas, the continued failure to monitor diesel sales and verify the ultimate use of bulk purchases, and the failure to deal with fishing vessels reconfigured for diesel transport. 

The end result? A corrupt system involving the Ministry of Energy, the illegal diesel operators, and law enforcement including senior Coast Guard officers occasionally moonlighting as vessel operators. The corruption also extends into money laundering, the trade in guns and narcotics, and the business of murder. In a $5 billion business, dirty money flows by any means necessary.

Illegal quarrying, another $5 billion a year operation, runs alongside the illegal diesel trade. Illegal operators cost the country about $500 million each year, while carving out revenue streams for senior public servants and law enforcement who turn a blind eye. For contracted Ministry of Energy field staff, doing the right thing could curtail career prospects. 

With many small operators working off squatted State and private lands, illegally extracted material is commingled with material legitimately purchased from licensed operators and sold on the open market. In this illegal quarry business, piles of rock extracted without authorisation form the foundation of a multimillion dollar racket involving thugs and established material resellers. 

With thugs involved, “industry” consolidation by murder and duress is the likely next step as criminals focus on control and cash flow. Minister Howai must focus on his own cash flow and stem the country’s subsidisation of racketeering in the diesel trade and illegal quarrying that has already cost the country billions. Diesel in exchange for drugs and guns cannot be a good business model.

- The author is a lawyer and a university lecturer