Sunday, December 17, 2017

Tackling the smugglers


DESERTED: King's Wharf in San Fernando yesterday. —Photo: NICHOLAS RAMJASS

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Government's decision to not buy the three Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) may be good news for smugglers posing as fishermen.

The billion-dollar contract signed by the People's National Movement government in April 2007 to build and commission the vessels, is all but dead, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar confirmed last week.

The OPVs, law enforcement experts believed, were critical to stopping the flow of guns, ammunition and illegal drugs into the country, much of it coming in aboard boats making fast trips between the South American continent and Trinidad's gulf and south coasts.

Even Minister of National Security, Brigadier John Sandy, had supported its purchase, saying the OPVs were needed in the fight against crime.

And recent reports of cocaine floating up on beaches of Trinidad is more proof that the waters around the island may be a drug transshipment highway. Fishermen admit many amongst them are involved in the profitable, if dangerous and illegal, business.

Past administrations have invested in several military vessels including 12 interceptor crafts, six fast patrol crafts and two coastal patrol vessels used by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG). The TTCG has operational bases in Cedros, Galeota, Staubles Bay and Tobago with 14,000-plus trained officers.

Radars are placed strategically throughout the country to monitor the movement of vessels at sea.

Three weeks ago, the Sunday Express spent a day out at sea to get a first hand look into the day in the life of a fisherman. We discovered local fishermen lack proper infrastructure to fully enjoy the benefits of the job. There is no proper storage areas, no freezers, no electricity nor pipe-borne water at fishing areas, and no nearby gas stations which entail fishermen travelling some distance to get gas to power their boats.

They spoke of dwindling catches and lack of State support.

Emile Louis, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Fisherfolk (TTUF) told the Sunday Express that a lack of proper infrastructure contributed to the lack of enthusiasm by some fishermen.

He said all professions have good and bad individuals and that many people used fishing as a cover-up trade, just like in any other job.

"We would like a unification of the private sector and all those who have a part to play in the fishing industry to address certain issues.

"What we do is our livelihood, to bring food to this nation, and we don't have proper things in place. Imagine, we don't have basic things like water and electricity.

"When we want to have discussions, we have to hold meetings under a tree or on an upturned boat. Those are some of the things that push people away from the industry and cause them to get involved in all of sorts of illegal things," he said.

Louis' observation was backed up by the presidents of several fishing organisations including Peter Gloden from Moruga, Kishore Boodram from Claxton Bay and Francis Arjoon in Mayaro.

Said Gloden: "So many things turn out (bad) when you deprive people of a facility. There is a lack of employment and the drug trade becomes attractive to young people who are trying to make their lives better."

He said many youths were involved in the illegal drug trade, specially in the transportation of marijuana coming from St Vincent and Grenada.

Gloden said too, people were acquiring illegal firearms because the legal process for obtaining a firearm was too long and difficult.

"They make it so hard to get a firearm when you want to defend yourself. People getting it so easy when these fellas bring it in. And many of them don't want any real sophisticated arms, they just want a simple weapon to defend themselves with," he said.

Gloden suggested that joint patrols by the Coast Guard and the Venezuelan army be conducted regularly.

Referring to the fishing agreement between the two countries signed by then Foreign Affairs Minister Ralph Maraj in 1997 and which allowed Trinidadians to fish in Venezuelan waters and vice versa, Gloden said when this agreement ended, smuggling activities increased. One fisherman from Icacos, an area considered ground zero for smuggling, said fishermen got involved in the drug trade because they have no choice.

"Some of the people here are forced to go into that because there is a neglect of the community and of the fishing industry.

"They have access to guns and different types of drugs. They will make their arrangements with people in Venezuela, go and buy the stuff and then bring it in," he said.

He said the drug problem in Icacos was not as bad as other areas and those involved were not fishermen but boat owners who used their boats for the sole purpose of transporting drugs.

Another fishermen told the Sunday Express that some men who bought drugs did not own vessels but paid boat owners to transport the drugs for them.

An International Narcotics Control Strategy Report on the US Department of State's website reports that Trinidad and Tobago is a convenient transshipment point for drugs, mainly cocaine, but also heroin, destined for US and European markets from South America.

The drugs arrive from the South American mainland on small, fast fishing boats, pleasure crafts and airplanes. They are then smuggled out on yachts, in air cargo and by couriers.

The document also noted that previous eradication operations reduced the amount of cannabis available for domestic consumption but that this led to the importation of marijuana from St Vincent and Venezuela.

The report also noted that "Trinidad and Tobago has an advanced petrochemical sector which requires the import/export of precursor chemicals that can be used to manufacture cocaine hydrochloride." According to US law enforcement officials, precursor chemicals originating in Trinidad and Tobago have turned up in illicit drug labs in Colombia.