Friday, February 23, 2018

PM’s sound of silence


Mark Fraser

 Ten days. That’s how long it took the Prime Minister to say something on the US$100 million cocaine bust in Norfolk, Virginia. And, when she spoke, the PM delivered a weak statement, deferring to her National Security Minister’s gag order, aligning with the myth that local law enforcement was part of the drug bust, and meekly describing the bust as something we will learn from. The silence was not surprising. This PM nominated a terribly unqualified person to head the country’s counter-narcotic intelligence operations, and then instituted a State of Emergency on account of 11 murders in four days and a $22 million drug bust. What but silence do you expect?

While the PM remained silent, this cinema-loving country was mesmerised by reports of the FBI and DEA landing in the country to cart away the infamous local drug mafia. A photo of heavily armed DEA agents exiting an airport made the social media rounds to the applause of the hopeful. It did not matter that the photo itself was demonstrably taken in Puerto Rico. In reality, the US is here to solve its own problem of cocaine being trafficked on US soil. The US is not, except through its normal diplomacy and horse-trading, interested in our political and leadership problems. The US will do just enough to secure the extradition and prosecution of those involved in landing cocaine into the US, and no more. We must deal with our problems.

The US government’s March 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, published almost two years after our SoE, noted that, “sustainability, corruption and gaps in legislative and organisational implementation remain challenges to the country’s efforts to curb the trafficking and use of illegal narcotics”. The report concluded, “The entities and individuals working to combat narcotics in Trinidad and Tobago face considerable challenges and insufficient support from political leadership. Additional reforms are necessary to expedite case prosecution, revise outdated laws, and establish an evidence-based criminal justice system as fundamental prerequisites for raising conviction rates and deterring traffickers. Insufficient interagency co-operation and information sharing remain concerns.”

To solve our problems we have to understand two things. First, in our FBI and DEA excitement, we forgot that in 2005 a drug bust bigger than the Norfolk drug bust took place right here, on Monos Island. We had full control of the investigation, then the prosecution. We had access to all the resources we needed. And, when the trial of seven accused ended in 2008 with convictions, there were no wealthy men in suits and shades among the convicted. The combined net worth of those convicted could barely afford a luxury motor vehicle sitting in a local showroom. The lesson of Monos Island is that finding narcotics is not the end of an investigation, but the beginning. 

Next, the best investment the country can make in a counter-narcotics strategy is in the tracking, tracing and scrupulous investigation of the movement of money, since we do not need to find narcotics to find the trade in narcotics. As though the thought of Americans with their own problems arriving here to solve ours is not farfetched enough, our politicians are running around like crazy ants to scan every receptacle in town for signs of the almost mythical drug mafia. As the Americans learnt in the 1976 documentary, All the President’s Men, we need to follow the money.

Which takes us back to August 2011 when the Government invoked the 1994 Harrison Ford movie title, Clear and Present Danger, to justify a State of Emergency. If 11 murders in four days and a $22 million drug bust prompted a State of Emergency then, with this Norfolk drug bust 30 times bigger than the $22 million bust, what will our government do?  With murders, several of them drug- and gang-related, about to reach 50 in a month for the first time since June 2010, and the Norfolk cocaine bust pointing to our porous seaports and outrageously brazen criminals, the PM has only now spoken, added nothing, and seems happy to go along. 

In 2011 the Attorney General added to the Government’s clear and present danger script, saying the SoE was instituted to avert a crisis based on intelligence from security agencies that there was an immediate threat and endangerment to public safety and innocent citizens. That decision, said the AG, was preceded by the $22 million drug bust that allowed the police to “stop in its tracks an entire drug operation that used T&T as a route and transshipment point”. 

Thirty months later the country discovers that not only did a shipment 30 times more valuable than the $22 million find enter and exit the country, there is evidence that the criminals behind this shipment may have used the same modus operandi since 2006 without problems.

Before and after the SoE no one stopped in their tracks and that is not surprising. One year earlier, the 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report was more specific to our current drug bust dilemma. It noted that, “better surveillance coordination and increased maritime patrols could reduce drug transshipment. Improving passenger and cargo screening, including targeting and automating inspections, could increase seizure rates. Implementation of this year’s anti-gang legislation could discourage gang activity if strategically implemented. 

Plea bargaining, dedicated drug courts, and better utilisation of forensic evidence could streamline judicial processes and improve the credibility of the criminal justice system. Increased resources for investigating fraud and bribery could serve to enhance public confidence in law enforcement institutions”.

The Government has every bit of research, analysis, and old talk it needs. For ten days Minister Griffith was the PM’s mouthpiece as her Government pulled the shroud of “under investigation”. Neither that nor the FBI and DEA fantasy will choke crime or shield the Government. During her silence, the PM had ten days to figure out that crazy ants cannot defeat organised crime. 

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer