The GRA Commissioner General’s promised enquiry

It would, perhaps, be precipitate to suggest, at this stage, that the hurdles that appear to be springing up following GRA Commissioner General Kurshid Sattaur’s publicly stated commitment to a full and transparent investigation into the Vega Azurit cocaine incident could end up derailing a major drug bust. On the other hand, precedent in matters of this kind has counselled us to temper our expectations to the point where, these days, we allow ourselves to do no more than hope for the best.

In fairness to the authorities too, drug-trafficking investigations are invariably fraught with the most enormous difficulty, even in countries that are manifestly better equipped than we are to undertake such investigations.  As we suggested in our editorial of exactly a week ago, drug traffickers usually go to a great deal of time, cost and trouble both to protect their enterprise and to cover their tracks.

All that having been said, the note of optimism sounded by the Commissioner General during his first ‘up front’ interview with this newspaper just over a week ago may have been considerably watered down by subsequent developments, leaving the impression that, once again, circumstances may be conspiring to hinder a successful investigation.

For a start, a good deal of dissonance has crept into the preliminary investigation into how the cocaine got on board the vessel in the first place. We are hearing, for example, that Customs Officers simply never processed the particular consignment of timber before it was placed on the vessel; that the consignment in which the cocaine was found concealed was not scheduled to be shipped to Jamaica on the Vega Azurit but on another vessel; and that there is no actual record of the consignment ever having been placed on board the Vega Azurit.

All of these various permutations, apart from pointing to a series of irregularities in the handling of the consignment appear to be placing roadblocks in the way of the enquiry. No less mind-boggling is the fact that the Customs Anti Narcotics Unit (CANU) which, last year, was relieved of the duty of inspecting incoming and outgoing vessels without any proper public explanation, has now been brought back to investigate the incident. One might reasonably assume therefore, that not having been in place to directly monitor the procedures that attended the movement of the consignment of logs up to the time of its placement on the Vega Azurit, CANU now, arguably, finds itself playing with a somewhat weaker hand than might otherwise have been the case.

In the wake of what has transpired over the past few days, therefore, the Commissioner General ought not to be surprised if the public now retreats into its familiar lair of cynicism and begins to suggest that he might not, after all, get his stated wish for a thorough and successful investigation, attended at its conclusion with a full disclosure of the facts and the prosecution of the guilty parties. What does not help in this kind of situation is that here in Guyana enquiries into occurrences of this nature are customarily shrouded in a cloak of secrecy so that the public, unable to follow closely the unfolding process of the investigation is none the wiser as to how the outcome is arrived at.

We know, for example, from what we have already been told that there were irregularities and seemingly serious ones in the procedures that attended the loading of the particular consignment of timber onto a departing vessel and even if we assume that the functionaries responsible for ensuring adherence to those procedures are guilty of inattention to their duties rather than of the commission of any crimes, they still have a great deal to answer for. Presumably too, the shipper’s innocence can be declared only at the point when guilt is ruled out by compelling and incontrovertible evidence. Of course, quite how, given the presumed strictness of Customs procedures, a consignment of cargo of the magnitude of containers of logs can get on board a vessel without Customs checks or, as has been reported, can be switched from one vessel to another is unclear and the Customs would have their work cut out to persuade even the slowest kindergarten child that these were ‘accidents’ rather than deliberate acts.

At the very least, therefore, we are aware of a series of occurrences for which the gatekeepers who directly ‘handled’ the controversial consignment of cargo must answer serious and searching questions.

If it may seem at this stage as though we are pressing the issue and even at the risk of having the Commissioner General interpret our concern as a kind of hassle, we believe that previous experience, that is, the litany of failure associated with efforts to unmask drug traffickers, fully justifies our concern in this instance.

If we are by no means suggesting, at this stage, that nothing earth-shattering is likely to come of Commissioner General Sattaur’s promised investigation, what we are pointing to, based on what we have learnt so far, is the fact that the investigation appears to have gotten off to a less than auspicious start. Equally disconcerting is the opinion that we have formed that the Commissioner General appears to have decided that his brief excursion into openness on the Vega Azurit issue has come to an end.

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