Gov’t to trace source of gold from Curaçao heist

-was destined for Miami
The stash of gold grabbed off a fishing boat in a spectacular early morning heist in Curaçao on Friday was destined for Miami, an island customs official said yesterday as authorities followed new leads while a local probe was announced to determine if the gold was mined here.

At least six bandits posing as police on Friday stole 70 bars of gold worth an estimated US$11.5 million ($2.3 billion) from a fishing boat, the ‘Summer Bliss,’ which had just moored at a wharf in Curaçao, having arrived from Guyana. The daring, “unprecedented” heist, carried out with precision, has left officials in the Dutch-speaking island questioning whether it was an “inside job” and has also seen concern expressed about the security of shipping there. The heist has garnered media attention from around the world.

Yesterday, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Persaud met with local gold and diamond dealers and the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) in an emergency meeting, where he reiterated government’s zero tolerance for gold smuggling, the Government Information Agency (GINA) reported. “The Minister stated that the President of Guyana and the government are very concerned and are treating the report with a high level of seriousness. As such, the Government and law enforcement sector will work with concerned international authorities to ascertain the source of the gold,” GINA said.

Richenel Martijn, the press spokesman for Curaçao customs told the news agency, Amigoe, that the gold was bound for Miami. “The ship was in transit. The cargo would be delivered in Miami in the United States (US),” he was quoted as saying. The report said that shipping of gold and money is permitted once this is indicated on the cargo manifest. The shipping agency that is responsible for the handling of customs clearance must notify customs for it to be processed and this was done, according to Richenel. “Customs was aware of the fact that a large amount of gold (was) on board,” he was quoted as saying. He added that the manifest was sent electronically on Thursday for clearance before the ship arrived.

Amigoe reported insiders as saying that the ‘Summer Bliss’ would be seen with “great regularity” at Curaçao.

The report said that Harbour Master Marlon Laroche revealed that the shipping agency, Agencia Bethencourt, represented the vessel. Vessels with valuable cargo are almost always checked, the report said.

‘Well-organized’

Meanwhile, the manner in which the heist was carried out showed that the heist was well organized, Martijn said. The vessel arrived at 4am and immediately after mooring, was attacked. The gold was in three metal boxes and the six, masked men reportedly took only five minutes to remove these. The gold weighed 216 kilograms.

Police reports detailed how the heist occurred. The group of about six men or more was in three different cars. Police spokesman Reggie Huggins said guards to the port area let the assailants inside a restricted area in the mistaken belief that they were customs officials. The men’s jackets had the word “police” in English but in Curaçao the word would be written in Papiamento, one of the island’s three official languages, as “polis.”

Amigoe reported that the first car circled in a route that would be typical for customs patrols/visits and the guards though it was customs officials on patrol. Police investigations showed that the first car, a white, old model Mitsubishi Lancer, honked at a gate and the guard thought the driver was a member of customs and opened the barrier allowing access.  The suspect parked close to the ship. The barrier was not immediately closed and two other cars, a red Mitsubishi Lancer (GL) and a gray Hyundai Elantra, sped in a few seconds later before the gate was closed. The police were quickly informed.

The drivers of both cars parked next to the other car and six masked and armed men got out. They all wore hoodies and had police jackets. The men stormed the ship and at gunpoint, pushed the 51-year-old captain as well as the three Guyanese crew ages 53, 47 and 39 years, on the ground. The crewmen and captain are all Guyanese, the report said.

Upon questioning why he was pushed, one of the crewmembers, the 53-year-old man, was lashed on the head with a gun. He sustained injuries to his head and right eye.

The perpetrators apparently knew their way around the ship. They walked directly to the three metal boxes with 70 gold bars weighing 216 kilograms, took them and escaped before the police arrived.

Yesterday, Curaçao police said that that they have the license plate number of one of three cars used in Friday’s getaway, and they have been asking for the public’s help in tracking the suspects. No one has been arrested in the “unprecedented” case. Up to yesterday afternoon, the captain and three crew members were still being interviewed by police.

It has been reported earlier that officials in Curaçao were contacted about the incoming gold shipment as part of regular security protocol. Police did not say where the gold was being delivered, but one crew member, who identified himself as Raymond Emmanuel had said they were delivering the gold to an unidentified company in Curaçao. He said the crew left Guyana on Monday and arrived in Curaçao early Friday. Martijn yesterday said that the boat’s captain shared with authorities the intended recipient of the gold bars, but he declined to release the name because the case is under investigation. He added that the ship’s crew followed protocol and that there is no special procedure for shipments of high value.

‘Task force’

Meanwhile, yesterday GINA reported that a special task force which will include representatives from the GGDMA, law enforcement authorities, Customs and Trade Administration, among other stakeholders has been put together to review the current regulations so as to prevent the smuggling of gold and other minerals.

It said that the Ministry of the Natural Resources and the Environment has been seeking to work with Suriname, Brazil and Venezuela to reduce all forms of illegal minerals trade and will continue to work with all stakeholders of the gold industry to ensure that more stringent measures are implemented and enforced to ensure the legal trade of Guyana’s gold is maintained.

At yesterday’s meeting, GGDMA President Patrick Harding recalled that all the association members have been urged to sell gold to the Guyana Gold Board or authorised dealers, GINA reported.

Gold smuggling is said to be prevalent here with a significant quantity believed to be smuggled to Suriname owing to lower tax and royalty rates in that country. Gold from Guyana is usually exported via air, given the rapid fluctuation of prices for the precious mineral, and under tight security.

Administrative coordinator of the GGDMA, Colin Sparman on Friday had questioned the legality of the Curaçao shipment stating that all gold exports from Guyana leave by air given the rapid fluctuation of gold prices. He noted that it would take days and even weeks to ship gold by sea with security also weaker via this route. Last year Guyana recorded official gold production at 360,000 ounces though a significant portion is believed to be smuggled.

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