Sunday, February 25, 2018

PM: Every nation has narco-trafficking issues

Trinidad and Tobago’s international trade reputation will not be negatively impacted despite the $644 million cocaine bust in the United States last month from a container originating in Port of Spain, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said yesterday.

“We were able through allies to bust this container of goods, unfortunately with a Trinidad and Tobago name on it. We still don’t know if it was something done here or elsewhere; that is under investigation. The shipment may have left T&T, but what transpired after that is still sensitive and still under investigation. Certainly there will be concerns, but I’m not sure we will be impacted so negatively that we will be branded everywhere and blocked everywhere and I’m fortified in that view that the manufacturer was able to show these labels were counterfeit, and that the shipment was not made by them.

“Every nation in the world has issues with narco-trafficking and therefore it’s (about) our response now. We learn every day,” the Prime Minister told reporters at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA), Port of Spain, before she delivered the feature address at the launch of the National Week of Prayer.

This was her first official statement since the story broke two weeks ago that Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officers at the Port of Norfolk in the US state of Virginia seized 732 pounds of cocaine concealed in cans bearing the labels of SM Jaleel product Trinidad Orange and Grapefruit juices on December 20 last year.

The wholesale value of the cocaine is about US$12 million and has a street value of as much as US$100 million, according to Customs officials.

The PM refrained from commenting further, but endorsed the “information lock down” advocated by National Security Minister Gary Griffith pertaining to news on the progress of investigations.

“The matter is under investigation. It is sensitive and it would be inappropriate to comment on it at this time... I think with this being such a sensitive matter, information should be shared on a need to know basis. Therefore, this blanket in terms of sharing information is on lock down; I think it’s a good strategy because we’ve seen in the past where leakages could lead to compromising of the investigation,” Persad-Bissessar said, adding she read an article earlier that the region was becoming the number one transshipment point for illegal drugs destined for Europe and North America.

“I don’t think it’s a new factor but certainly Trinidad is being used more and more; our geographic location, I suppose, may be a reason we are targeted,” she said.

Last week, Griffith said he was invoking a “gag order” on the media and officials from reporting any new information on investigations by local and US law enforcement.

He and Cabinet colleagues Trade Minister Vasant Bharath, Communications Minister Gerald Hadeed, Tourism Minister Chandresh Sharma and National Diversity Minister Rodger Samuel were also at NAPA.

Griffith said since the bust, current border security protocol had “most definitely” been reviewed.

“We have been ahead of the game but also it shows the importance to have a legitimate port of entry security which is what we have been putting in place through scanners, canine and other security initiatives at this point in time,” he said.

A $25 million scanner to examine import containers—purchased through a Chinese grant under the condition that the product purchased was made in China—is currently being installed at the Port of Port of Spain.

Bharath, who last Monday said export containers are not traditionally checked by Customs before leaving the country, added that the division is still examining the ways to “close all loopholes regarding that”.

He added that three scanners that were to be acquired through US aid last year were delayed because of regulatory issues that had to be approved by the US Senate, but that has been received and the scanners are expected in June. See Page 4.