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New Customs ‘safe avenue’

By Mark Bassant CCN Senior Multimedia Investigative Journalist

A new, three-month-old system in effect at Customs and Excise could well be provi­ding a safe avenue for contraband goods being imported into Trinidad and Tobago.

There is now heightened security at the country’s ports, following the $644 million bust in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, of a shipment of 732 lbs of cocaine in juice cans that originated from Trinidad.

The new system in question is called the Voluntary Compliance Programme (VCP).

A confidential Customs document obtained by the Express and TV6 states: “This programme is based on the principle that importers will voluntarily comply with all tax laws and accurately meet their obligations with regard to the assessment and payment of all taxes due to the State. In this initial phase of the programme, a group of eight importers who are users of the Customs Border Control System (CBCS) and have a history of compliance have been selected by the division....”

The circular goes on to explain: “After the payment of duties and taxes and triggering the selectivity, the importers who have been authorised to participate in this programme will now be able to print their release orders on the CBCS. As a result of this, the following procedures now apply.”

A senior Customs source privy to the document said it can have serious consequences. 

“Companies can sign off on their own release order and declare their goods to the green and blue lane, which more or less allows them to have their container cleared once their documents are in order and then released in their possession. This is setting a dangerous precedence,” he said.

He explained declarations were assigned to the red and yellow line by the CBCS, which must be inspected and viewed, “and these companies could have the power to also re-route their containers to the blue and green lane”.

“What is even more frightening is the fact that in the coming months and by the end of the year, that list of eight will grow, allowing more importers to be incorporated into the Voluntary Compliance Programme where they can virtually oversee their own container, with very little interaction from Customs,” he said.

Informed of the circular on Wednesday, Minister of Trade, Industry and Investment Vasant Bharath was in disbelief.

“Well, we see recently, companies with good reputation can be infiltrated, so I’m surprised that this policy is in existence or might have just been formulated, but I will certainly speak with Customs on it,” he said.

Pressed further, Bharath said, “I’m not aware of this new policy that you are talking about, in relation to this new procedure and eight companies. As far as I’m aware, Customs and Excise ought to be inspecting all containers that they believe are of a suspicious nature and also do random tests on all containers coming in.

“What we are attempting to do is create a balance between putting too many bureaucratic procedures in place that will slow down the flexibility of trade or the speed of trade, but by the same token, based on certainly what has happened recently, we have to put enough measures in place to do proper checks, both physically and off course, with our new scanners.”

One of the five signatories on the document, Assistant Comptroller E Newallo from Customs and Excise Division, was contacted by the Express and TV6, but she said she could not make any comment because she was a public servant and directed us to the comptroller. Efforts to contact the PR department were futile.

A senior port official in the know about things happening especially at the Port of Spain Port said, “Customs are a law unto themselves and no one can tell them how to do their jobs. They inspect containers they feel like and never take guidance from any port official. I honestly believe they should be subjected to the scrutiny of the Integrity Commission because quite honestly, some of their lifestyles don’t add up.”

 
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