The Commissioner General and the Vega Azurit incident

There appeared to be a hint of contriteness in some of the comments made to this newspaper by Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority Khurshid Sattaur, and reported in our Friday edition, in the matter of the recent Vega Azurit cocaine bust in Jamaica. It marked a departure from what, often, has been the brusque and combative manner that informs Mr Sattaur’s encounters with the media. Arguably, his posture is understandable. Few if any public officials in Guyana find themselves faced more frequently with tough, searching questions arising out of issues pertaining to the performance of the departments which they manage. In Mr Sattaur’s case those questions almost always arise out of occurrences that involve his Customs officers.

In the matter of Customs officers’ responsibility for inspecting incoming and outgoing vessels Mr Sattaur said: “I’m not making excuses. But this aspect of law enforcement has been challenging even the CANU. Can you imagine what the implications mean to us here in Revenue?” Of course we understand, Mr Sattaur. We understand too that the vulnerabilities of training and resources limit the effectiveness of Customs in the execution of this particular responsibility, and that those deficiencies work to the advantage of drug traffickers. What we do not understand are official responses to incidents which might result from those vulnerabilities that often appear to be characterized by cover-ups rather than candidness.

There are times, one feels, when Commissioner General Sattaur appears to believe that he has to ‘fight his corner’ alone; that no one else really understands the weighty responsibilities that attend the management of Customs administration. The truth is, he couldn’t be more wrong. No one in their right mind would even suggest that the job of detecting and thwarting cocaine traffickers who favour the movement of their product through the country’s legitimate seaports is anything less than a monumental one. The strength of the drug trade reposes in the considerable profits which it generates and its ability to invest heavily in its protection, both by ensuring that the movement of the drugs benefits from the most sophisticated and cleverly contrived communication and transportation inventory and through the strategic recruitment of personnel who are well placed to ensure that the process goes smoothly. Combating the drug trade demands considerable and continuous investment in upgrading the human and technical infrastructure deployed against a highly organized and decidedly sophisticated ‘industry,’ and the Commissioner General should not believe that he can or should be anything less than frank on this issue. On this occasion – and while we continue to be concerned about the extent of the vulnerability of our ports to drug trafficking – he has chosen to be a little more open about the problem.

Mr Sattaur knows only too well that official undertakings to investigate incidents like this one are usually responded to with a healthy measure of public suspicion, even cynicism, long before such investigations have even begun, so that the outcomes, however honest they may be, are frequently not taken seriously. That, quite simply, is a credibility problem. On this occasion – and while we must await the outcome of the investigation before a definitive pronouncement can be made – Mr Sattaur, declaring that the existing mechanisms for ship inspection are far from perfect and, by extension, perhaps vulnerable to occurrences like the Vega Azurit incident, has given notice that potentially, at least, his promised investigation could bear some meaningful fruit.

The incident, by its very nature, also points to the likelihood that the perpetrators may well be exposed. As we reported yesterday, according to a letter from Commissioner of Forests Mr James Singh to Mr Sattaur, the head of the Transnational Crime and Narcotics Division in Jamaica has named the exporter as the ‘Aroaima Forest Producers Association’ and the shipper as ‘ZIM Integrated Shipping Services Ltd’; official records, therefore, should point directly to the handlers of this particular timber consignment.

By pointing to some of the “things which need to be put in place to help us do a better job” Mr Sattaur appears ready to concede that some of the ‘critics’ of Customs operations have good reason to wonder about the likelihood that the Vega Azurit incident may have occurred as a result of one or another of those deficiencies. In the final analysis, however, Mr Sattaur would be well advised to worry less about the ‘critics’ and more about seeking to remedy the weaknesses in the inspection system  which, by his own admission, exist. Moving forward as quickly as he can with the necessary remedial measures to make life more difficult for the narco-traffickers and keeping the public abreast of those measures ought now to be the Commissioner General’s priority.

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