De ‘bust’ buss

By Raffique Shah
February 02, 2014

Raffique ShahWithin days of the announcement by US authorities that they had intercepted 700-odd pounds of cocaine shipped from Trinidad to Norfolk, Virginia, and the well-publicised arrival here of a number of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, I sensed that something had gone awfully wrong.

As the media frenzy rose to frenetic proportions—Messrs Big facing imminent arrest, extradition underway, DEA interrogates Customs, and so on—the missing links in a successful drug bust were too glaring. Based on my experience (as a journalist, I had investigated and written on several big narcotics interceptions in the 1990s), I concluded that little or nothing would come out of this seizure.

In other words, de bust buss!

A successful drug bust usually begins with the arrests of several lynchpins, sometimes kingpins, at the end-user side of the market. In the instant case, for example, the first we in Trinidad should have known about the Norfolk seizure was that a syndicate in New York had been busted, with the importer and several distributors arrested and facing charges.

Simultaneously, we’d learn of the quantity of drugs seized, and its origin. And if the DEA and local police were on the ball, we’d hear that persons in Trinidad and maybe Venezuela had already been picked up as investigations intensified. DEA agents would then arrive, armed with sufficient evidence to seek the extradition of those responsible for exporting the cocaine.

Closure would usually come within months, with every-man-jack sent to prison for lengthy terms, and possibly a bonus in the form of the confiscation of ill-gotten gains from their bank accounts or properties.

In other words, success is not about seizures, although that is useful. It must include arrests and successful prosecution of a syndicate (well, it’s hardly ever a cartel), and hopefully the dismantling of its operations.

These things did not happen in this case. Instead, the US authorities made a big song and dance about the discovery of the illicit drugs, end of story. Our officials, seizing the opportunity to appear to be doing something to stem the flow of drugs, hint at having collaborated with the DEA.

The unpalatable truth is this operation has been an unmitigated disaster. In fact, for many years our drug interdiction programme has yielded only a string of stupid ‘mules’ with cocaine in their stomachs or suitcases, the occasional discovery of a few kilos of drugs, but never the arrest of anyone that resembled a drug dealer.

It is not as if this country is not one of the major transhipment points for cocaine destined for the North American and European markets. The Norfolk seizure, one-third-tonne, is an indication that we ‘big in the dance’. How many similar shipments passed through that particular port before the US authorities made a breakthrough? What’s happening at other entry points to that lucrative market, and in Europe?

A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) research paper on the Trans-Atlantic cocaine trade, dated April 2011, concluded that the Andean countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) produced 1,100 tonnes in 2009. Allowing for interceptions and seizures along the trade routes, the authors estimated that 123 tonnes eventually reached European consumers and 179 tonnes North Americans (mainly the USA).

The estimated street value of this combined 302 tonnes was put at US $70 billion! That works out to around $230 million a tonne. In the Norfolk seizure, US authorities valued one-third tonne at $100 million, or $300 million a tonne.

Bearing in mind this latter number is the street value, we can safely assume that the trans-shippers in Trinidad cream off at least 25 per cent of that, say US $75 million a tonne. Of the estimated 300 tonnes traded, if 5.0 per cent passes through Trinidad, it means US$1.1 billion, or TT$7.0 billion, is generated, and likely laundered, here.

If we are conservative in the extreme and assume only one per cent (three tonnes) passes this way, we are talking close to $2.0 billion a year of cocaine dollars circulating in the system.

That’s a lot of money in a country where government revenue for the current fiscal year is estimated at $55 billion and expenditure around $60 billion. Put in another perspective, think of what US$1.0 billion means to any small island Caribbean country whose budgetary expenditure and revenue may not exceed $3.0 billion.

Put bluntly, does it not make sense for any government in the Caribbean to turn a blind eye to the illicit operations of ‘Messrs Big’, given their contributions to the economy? In Trinidad’s case, cocaine dollars may fall behind only oil, gas, petrochemicals, services and manufacturing.

I am not suggesting that ‘somebody letting the cocaine pass’ as David Rudder sang many years ago. But if criminal enterprises can conduct canning businesses, mimicking legitimate manufacturers, and export cocaine via containerised cargo, something is rotten somewhere.

Worse, on several occasions the authorities have found large quantities of drugs in import containers, yet no one has been charged. The only ‘drug criminals’ jailed in this country are ‘coke-heads’ and two-bit pushers. That stinks.

3 thoughts on “De ‘bust’ buss”

  1. “But if criminal enterprises can conduct canning businesses, mimicking legitimate manufacturers, and export cocaine via containerised cargo, something is rotten somewhere.”….Raffique
    There is a tendency in this country to avoid as much as possible mentioning the role that big business play in the burgeoning crime world of illicit drugs, money laundering and human trafficking. They play a large part in the underground economy and might be as large as some of our renowned products as gas, oil and petro chemicals. The word “businessman” connotates an almost cannon-like meaning in the minds of the ordinary citizen because we a taught to have respect and to honor them in a somewhat god-like manner. I think we, the people, ought to re-think that honor that we so unwittingly place towards these people who are the architects, planners and operators of the underground economy. In most cases, they appear in our faces and big, industrious, sophisticated and profitable businesses and we stock their operations with big shopping carts loading our baskets with their seemingly authentic and legal offerings that we the people yearn for. Walking the streets, it is easy to know who is who in Trinidad vis-a-vis the illegalities of the under ground economy. People speak freely of who our real ‘businessmen’ are. We see them knock glasses with our best and brightest in the political, financial and industrial world and as such are cleansed from the sins that their trade create for ordinary folks who cannot speak or act for themselves. What a shame!

  2. Kian it is an example of the Orwellian thinking that inundate the minds of those who rant and rave about street crime, while giving the Nelson Eye to other crimes that promote a wider scope of violence and misery. That is why, regardless of how many containers and ships and planes and what not turn up with drugs, the sources will remain untouched while they collar and present the mules and other minions before the public in the continued manifestation of their racial and ethnic prejudice. You see, for these little eichmen, they came to T&T with a perception, and they have to always find a way of rationalizing that perception.

  3. If we are to believe the media in its visual, audible and literal forms they oversimplify the conduct of crime to mean that it is something committed by the less fortunate, the uneducated and those who can’t help themselves. Mamoo will be quick to tell you that it is the by-product of the fatherless or motherless who choose to live a life of crime rather than choose to becomes educated and employable. The media covers it as though it is the result of our political and cultural deficits. The present government would present it in a way that numbers mean everything. In other words, if the numbers for last February was 35 and it is now 33, then we are making a headway on the fight against crime. We see crime with different visions. When people turn to a life of crime it affects themselves, family, community and the larger population. I remember an incident where traveling from Port Of Spain to San Fernando we had difficulties with our car and I was left alone in the Chaguanas area to watch the car until they return. I was scared to death because the thought of being caught there by the Poolool
    brothers was overwhelmingly frightful. In this country we did not wake up one morning and found crime on our doorstep or in our communities. Neglect and deterioration of infrastructures contributed significantly and they were accompanied by abandonment of services and caring. In present day living there is run-away profit to be gained by engaging in the lucrative underground economy where money comes in plentiful, in cash and in abundance. There are super markets in south that are the most stocked anywhere in the western hemisphere, never mind T&T. Can you imagine businessmen taking money from their pockets to ensure such bountiful packaging?

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