T&T businessman: Imported chicken being used as cover for drug, gun imports

(Trinidad Guardian) Chicken—mainly leg quarters imported from the United States—is being used as a cover to bring illegal drugs and guns into Trinidad and Tobago. The revelation comes from vice president of Nutrimix Feeds Ltd Ronnie Mohammed who insists that the importation of residual chicken parts from the US is a guise to facilitate the drug and gun trade which the Government is moving to address with the imposition of a state of emergency. The importation of chicken, Mohammed said, should have raised some red flags a long time ago by authorities because of the cheap prices offered to consumers, but was left unchecked.

Mohammed said despite the confirmation of the United States Department of Agriculture that local importers are invoiced at prices below what obtains in the USA, thus evading import duties and breaching the laws of T&T, this was never picked up. Mohammed believes all these things work in favour of the importers as a cover to bring in items illegally. More than 150 containers with chicken parts come into the country annually with the opening of markets in 2004 to fairer competition. The leg quarters are sold because Americans consume mainly breasts and wings. It was only upon the discovery of 921 kilos of marijuana with a value put at $30 million on the Point Lisas docks by Customs and Excise personnel recently, that the drug import procedure was unearthed.

Using innovative ways
Speaking at his Marabella office on Thursday, Mohammed said he was not surprised by the discovery, stating that he suspected for quite some time that “drugs in this country were being imported in very innovative ways.” Mohammed, the largest suppliers of chickens in T&T said the ports in Trinidad do not have any facilities to deal with unstuffing of containers. “The general norm is that containers that have refrigerated products are shipped out of the port, in some instances without being searched.” Importers who are also afforded concessions via a minister’s licence (a special licence issued by the Government) have also been abusing the system by bringing in raw materials which are duty free.

Another thing that piqued Mohammed’s interest was the cost of leg quarters on the local market. Mohammed said leg quarters retail at between US 35 cents and 65 cents per pound in the US, depending on global demand. If the parts are purchased at US 50 cents per pound, Mohammed said, the chicken would cost the importer $5.87 per pound, with a 40 per cent duty added. The exporter would then have to add transport, brokerage, cold storage fees, and his own profit margin to the $5.87 which would take the price to anywhere between $9 and $11 per pound. However, the parts are sold for an unbelievable $ 4.50 to $6 (TT) a pound to consumers.

Ignored by the authorities
The reason given for the low prices by the importers, Mohammed said, is to curb rising food inflation. But he questioned: “Who gives away that much money? When you look at the buying price to the selling price it is not adding up.” Mohammed said no businessman would sell a product below cost over a long period of time, “which the importers have been consistently doing.” “This should have raised some red flags with the authorities but it was ignored.” Stating that the imports had been putting the local chicken industry to great disadvantage, Mohammed said the parts came in 40 pound packages, frozen together forming a block that is easy for wrapping. The drugs are packaged the same way using the same weight as the chicken parts so as not to be detected when placed in the containers.

“The drugs were suspected for years. We know for a fact that when we see the rampant chicken imports taking place it is a front to facilitate other things.” Mohammed said where there are drugs, there are guns. “It works that way.” The chicken is imported from Georgia, New Orleans and Florida.

Some of the containers that leave New York sometimes pass through Jamaica, where drugs and illegal firearms are added. Mohammed expressed concern that containers at the ports are still searched manually by customs and police officers when they get a tip off. “The recent discovery provides evidence that action must be taken.” Mohammed said he would hate to think that no one would be charged arising from the recent findings.

Squeezed out
President of the Pluck Shop Association Rasheed Karim said for the past two years his association had noticed that chicken prices were way below cost. “We were being squeezed out by this. The producers couldn’t compete with the foreign imports.”