In-depth probe needed into cocaine in timber – Sattaur

– had said GFC cleared logs, not container

Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority Khurshid Sattaur yesterday said that only a detailed investigation could identify at what point the several hundred million dollars of cocaine, which Jamaican authorities found among timber on board a ship from Guyana was placed in the container.

“…The logs and the containers were handled by several persons and agencies starting with the exporters and ultimately ending with the shippers. A breach could have taken place at any point in that chain and only a detailed investigation would identify at what point the cocaine was placed in the container,” Sattaur said in a press release issued yesterday.

Khurshid Sattaur

The release said the GRA has called for a proper and detailed investigation into the March 12 bust and added that recent suggestions that officers from the Customs and Trade Administration (CTA) of the GRA may be implicated “are at best premature since preliminary investigations conducted separately by the GRA and the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) point to several discrepancies in the way the shipment of the logs was handled at different times by different agencies.”

Meanwhile, the GRA said it was very concerned about a headline and a story in this newspaper which would “appear to have caused some amount of alarm to the GFC, and regrets the implication that the GRA is now blaming the GFC for the container with the cocaine being on board the ship.”

The release said that last week Sattaur had established that the GFC was the agency responsible for “clearing” forestry products for shipping, while the CTA was responsible for “processing” the deceleration. Clearance by GFC, the release said, involves, among other things, the issuance of Export Certification, Timber Marketing Certification, and the stamping of the Customs Declaration form (C72) and related documents after which forestry issues the “clearance” and the CTA processes the deceleration.

“I would like to categorically state that it was never my intention to blame anyone or any agency for this heinous act, but, as indicated to reporters who called me on the matter, my intention is to get to the bottom of the incident and, at the appropriate time, take such action on the perpetrators if it is found that GRA officers were involved,” Sattaur said.

On Friday last Sattaur told this newspaper that customs did not check the container in which the five bags of cocaine were found, but that the logs were cleared by the GFC.

The report carried in the Saturday edition of this newspaper did not specify this, and had inadvertently stated that the GFC cleared the container in which the cocaine was found.

Sattaur had also said earlier that preliminary investigations revealed that customs officers were vigilant and diligent in the execution of their duties but the container with the cocaine was not subjected to a customs search. He stated that customs procedures in this case were well tested and questioned how the container could enter a ship when it was not booked on the shipping record.

“How did it end up there?” Sattaur had questioned since, according to him, his customs officers were totally oblivious to that particular container. He quickly added though that he was not saying that the customs officers involved were exonerated, but maintained that the container was not searched by them. Sattaur then called for a full scale investigation involving the police and said he would be seeking independent assistance as there is need to investigate fully everything that happened before the ship left Guyana.

According to him, he examined a lot of the documents that have since been forwarded to him and has detected that customs operated aboveboard on this recent incident. He said the incident occurred outside of customs procedures and questioned why persons were pointing fingers at customs. The Commissioner-General said he is currently investigating every aspect of customs involvement with the shipment and is going to extend the probe to include an external investigator because he wants full transparency.

“This is worrying to me. That cocaine went out on a ship which customs checked and we didn’t know about that container,” Sattaur had said.

GFC Commissioner James Singh fired off a letter to Sattaur following the Stabroek News report on Saturday last. He outlined the GFC’s responsibilities as regards exports of forest produce and stressed that the commission has absolutely no responsibility for the packing of forest produce into containers, or the examining and sealing of any container destined for export.

According to Singh, from documentation provided, it is clearly shown that the CTA received the customs declaration (C72) forms on March 1 and gave the “ok to load” on March 2 to the Examining Officer who then examined and sealed the containers including the cocaine container – ZCSU 8316084 – on March 11.

“The GFC cannot be held responsible for the clearing of this container for export as is erroneously stated in the Stabroek News article,” Singh said in his letter to Sattaur.

And in his letter Singh revealed that the container busted in Jamaica with the $700 million in cocaine was switched to the MV Vega Azurit after being originally booked to leave these shores on another ship.

He said some time after the GFC checked the documents which were then submitted to the shipping company and the Customs and Trade Administration (CTA), the vessel’s name listed on the form was changed from the MV Stadt Rotenburg to the Vega Azurit.

Singh revealed that since the bust the GFC has learnt from the Jamaican authorities that the cocaine was found in the container with number, ZCSU 8316084, which was then traced to the John Fernandes Wharf and which was shipped by ZIM Integrated Shipping Services Ltd and confirmed as being shipped on Vega Azurit on March 12.

“This container number was listed on export documents covering a shipment of logs by the Aroaima Forest Producers Association (AFAPA) Export Licence BER 05602011 which was slated for shipment via MV Stadt Rotenburg,” Singh said in the letter.

He revealed that the produce was graded and inspected in Aroaima and a GFC Grading Inspector signed off the Timber Marketing Certificate (TMC) document on February 18 stating that 180 pieces of logs were inspected. The Aroaima Company on February 25 applied to the GFC for an export certificate to export 130 pieces of the already inspected 180 logs.

Singh said based on the fact that the produce was independently verified and checked by the GFC Grading Inspector, the commission approved the export certificate.

The GFC’s investigation revealed that while CTA checked and sealed seven containers on February 28, eight containers are stated on the C72 form. He noted the switching of the ships on which the container was destined to leave.

On Wednesday last, Jamaican customs authorities discovered the five bags containing 122.65 kgs of cocaine with a street value of $700 million among timber in a container on the Vega Azurit. Reports had indicated that the vessel, which left from the John Fernandes Wharf, is one that frequents Guyana almost twice weekly. The vessel had arrived in Guyana on March 11 and left the following day.

Customs officers have been responsible for incoming and outgoing vessels since Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU) officers were removed from the wharfs some time last year. Sources had told Stabroek News that the name of the shipper and other information would not have been difficult to ascertain, since a customs officer would have had to check the container before it was sealed.

One source had pointed out that the officer would have had documentation on the work he would have carried out and pointed out that the officer should have seen the bags before putting a seal on the container. But Sattaur had later said that the scanner machine installed by GRA last year is not yet up and running.

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