With patches of rust scattered along the dull maroon waterline, ugly streaks on the small white cabin, and paint flaking off its faded black hull, the fishing trawler seemed a most unremarkable, dingy vessel that for years, slouched low in the open at its mooring, next to the stone walled ruins of the Curacao Trading Company complex. The name on the bow smudged in places but that on the stern still clear in uniform letters proclaimed the overly optimistic scrawl, “Summer Bliss” with the home port “Georgetown” neatly stencilled below.
Yet nearly five years on, it might as well have been “Something Amiss” or “Bummer Remiss” as we are no closer to any satisfactory public answers in the mysterious ownership, origin, Ocean 11-daring theft and rapid disappearance of the astonishing 70 refined bars or 476 pounds of glittering gold stashed on the drab Guyanese boat, soon after it docked in the dark at Sint Anna Bay, Willemstad, early on November 30 2012.
At least six masked men wearing jackets marked “Police” easily passed through the manned gates of the port facility in three cars. They pistol-whacked the questioning, middle-aged captain on the head, herded his frightened crew on to the floor, raced straight to the restricted section, whisked the heavy, locked container trio of US$11.5M worth of bright bullion into the trunks of their vehicles and within five minutes simply vanished into the night, before the roosters even had a chance to flick an eyelid much less crow on a little island of just 171 square miles.
Now ranked among the world’s most brazen precious metal robberies, the infamous heist remains disturbingly unsolved, throwing the world’s spotlight on Guyana’s serious problem of gold smuggling, and the big, seemingly untouchable players with the capital and contacts to coolly coordinate such cross-country operations. Thanks to the noticeable unwillingness of the previous administration and the seeming reluctance of their successors to quickly and fully investigate the matter and its root causes, plus the perplexing conduct of several main characters, the episode encompasses the sordid streak of a bizarre C-movie but with a comic life far stranger than contemporary art.
Indeed, police spokesman Reginald Huggins would acknowledge at the time: “The crew said it was like a movie operation, very fast.” Declining to disclose who owned the gold or to reveal the final destination, he would only concede it was a legal transshipment through the southern Caribbean island with officials being advised in advance of its arrival as part of normal security protocols. “Authorities knew of the shipment because the official procedure was followed,” he said.
The lone crew member ever named, Raymond Emmanuel would identify himself to the Associated Press, telling the news service that the men had left Guyana four days before, crossing from the Atlantic, and had expected to deliver the gold to a Curacao company but said he did not know the title of the business. None of the sailors were armed. “This is normal,” he commented. “We never carry arms. Since I started working here, I’ve transported gold once before, and this is the system.” The Curacao Chronicle (CC) would later highlight an American dossier on 15 years of illicit gold cargo between the two Caribbean nations.
Then Natural Resources Minister, Robert Persaud would soon maintain the gold was South American but not local, while dispatching a Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) duo that supposedly failed to garner any new insight or find and debrief the ship’s crew. His replacement Raphael Trotman disagreed about the ore’s origin insisting otherwise, and last year the Alliance for Change (AFC) coalition Minister estimated an astounding 15,000 ounces of gold is being smuggled out weekly with the state losing up to 60% of the yellow metal produced here. Given an average price of US$1 000 an ounce this would mean an overall cost of US$60 000 or $12B monthly.
Hardly a gold mine of information, the reticent Curacao authorities stubbornly refused to release any details or the names of the sailors on the grounds that the confidential investigation was a sensitive one, while affirming that the men were not under any investigation and could leave the island whenever they chose. The boat turned out to be registered as a cargo vessel in the name of missing Deosarran Shivpaul, whose address was allegedly Lot 23, Tenze Firme, Canal Number One, West Bank Demerara, but local police were unable to trace him at the site, which ended up being an empty plot of land.
Amidst media stories that nearly half of the stolen loot had quickly made its way to the US, that country’s Customs and Border Protection Agency divulged in January 2013, 11 gold bars were seized in Puerto Rico from Curacao, in courier boxes. At least two more were discovered at the Willemstad business of a jeweller. By June all five initial suspects in the theft were released and come March 2015, the Curacao crime enquiry had expectedly stalled since the Guyanese crew who had been reportedly in witness protection could no longer be found and their final fate and location remain unknown.
“The case cannot proceed because the trial judge gave instructions to the investigative judge to get statements from the Guyanese crew and they have all left,” Special Prosecutor Norman Serphos informed Stabroek News (SN). “The trial judge did not give a specific date for the investigative judge to report back to him. So, I don’t know how long this process will take. Can be one week, one month, one year, who knows?” Serphos added.
Now, comes the startling admission from boss Sydney James that the case is not being investigated by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), a unit of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) as no formal request has been made through the Police Commissioner, though many troubling questions linger and a recent audit of the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) concluded that the initial local probe into the record snatch was sloppy, presumably to protect those who may have been involved in the consignment, SN said.
AFC Leader Khemraj Ramjattan had accused the People’s Progressive Party (PPP/Civic) government of holding back on the Curacao scheme in January 2013, arguing not enough was being done at the time to learn the truth. Now he is the Public Security Minister and like his counterpart Trotman two years on, can certainly adopt the sort of stern measures desired and go for the gold and the great guns.
In its forensic analysis, accounting firm Ram and McRae criticised the initial look into the gold theft with the recommendations to Minister Persaud apparently “not pursued, reducing the chances of identifying and prosecuting the shipper.”
The auditors concluded, it represented “a less than serious attempt to pursue the investigations with a view to protecting persons who may have been involved in the unlawful shipment. We find it curious that the Guyana Gold Board, the principal regulator was not a party to the investigations.” The GGB has access to dealers’ premises and records of payments and inventory and that right ought to have been exercised to determine any significant variances, the firm stated.
“We believe that the occasion provided an opportunity for the Gold Board and the police to carry out visits to the business places of the larger gold dealers in Guyana. We are surprised that this was not done by any of the regulatory or enforcement agencies,” they remarked. They advocated “a thorough inter-agency investigation into the delays” and warned, “the method of communication with foreign authorities of gold shipments should be reviewed to determine the safeguards necessary to prevent such shipments from going undetected.”
They continued: “Our recommendation is that this investigation should be pursued with such regional and international assistance considered necessary. The objective is to bring this matter to a conclusion, ascertain how it was perpetrated, punish the wrongdoers and put safeguards in place to avoid any recurrence.” The audit showed that Mohamed’s Enterprise topped the official gold exports by dealers for the period January 2012 to May 2015, selling over 457 000 ounces.
In an industry beset by scandal, SOCU is now investigating whether there was collusion between Board employees and businessman Saddiqi Rasul, owner of SSS Minerals Trading, charged on April 3 with defrauding the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) a total of $956 million (US$4.7M). Board Manager Lisaveta Ramotar, Deputy Andrea Seelochan and Compliance Officer Suzanne Bullen were sent on administrative leave to facilitate a separate perusal into allegations of money laundering.
Meanwhile the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) has sounded the alarm on the increasing environmental degradation caused by gold mining in the interior, especially in the riverain communities of Puruni and Mazaruni, where a fact-finding Ministry mission was posted.
“The Puruni is a ruinous mess of tailings and devastation along miles of the river’s course, unnavigable for large stretches; Guyanese gold-mining effluent in the Cuyuni, added to that coming from Venezuela, spews poisoned yellow effluent into the Essequibo at Bartica in such volume as to discolour large stretches of this ‘mighty’ river’s Western shores. The Potaro, home of Kaieteur Falls has been so plundered for decades by mining that its course now has to be re-configured on the nation’s maps. Almost two decades ago the then head of the Guyana Defence Force (Brigadier Joe Singh) issued a wake-up call to the nation, declaring the Konawaruk River to be ‘dead’. The nation slept on and the rivers continue to die,” the GHRA thundered.
Calling for another national commission of inquiry, the group urged that the miners who have devastated the environment for future generations be held financially and morally responsible.
Mere months ago, an ecstatic Trotman praised the 690 000 ounce official gold declaration, the highest in Guyana’s history and set a 700 000 goal for 2017. But like the cautionary tale of King Midas and his resource curse, as it enthusiastically prepares for black gold, Guyana ought to be more careful for what it wishes since the Curacao caper stank like the toxic tailings ponds full of cyanide or turgid rivers tainted by mercury. In the words of a wag, as in the Johnny Nash hit: “There are more questions than answers, Pictures in my mind that will not show, There are more questions than answers, And the more I find out the less I know…”
ID wonders if the “Summer Bliss” did “disappear into the shredder” as planned by the Curaçao Ports Authority. A CC story said the anonymous “owner is not responding to requests to come take his boat,” which poses a danger to the environment and shipping and would therefore be destroyed.