By NALINEE SEELAL Tuesday, January 21 2014
A JOINT team of investigators comprising agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and local officers from the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), National Operations Centre (NOC) and Customs and Excise, were hot on the trail of the local crime syndicate behind the record $640 million cocaine-in-juice tins shipment from Trinidad to the Norfolk Port in Virginia, USA.
Senior national security sources told Newsday the joint team has identified the shipping line which was contracted to have the drugs — hidden in 700 sealed tins of Trinidad Fruit Juices exported to the Norfolk Port as part of a consignment of goods in a 20-foot container.
Sources said the shipping company operates out of west Trinidad and that investigators have identified the ship on which the cocaine was transported. “A booking was created on November 6. A day later, the transport company (name called) took delivery of this empty unit for the shipper (name called). This said unit returned to the port on November 8, 2013 and was processed and stacked,” a source told Newsday.
Newsday attempted to contact the shipping company but the number listed in the TSTT telephone directory was not in service and the accompanying address was for a location in west Trinidad.
Sources said apart from identifying a specific Trinidad ring of smugglers, who are the prime suspects in the shipment, agents are also looking at members of the local business fraternity as being heavily involved in the drug smuggling operation.
On December 20, Border Control agents and security officials at the Norfolk Port in Virginia discovered 332 kilos of cocaine in paste form hidden inside 700 sealed tins bearing the label of the popular Trinidad Orange and Grapefruit Juices, a subsidiary company of SM Jaleel Company.
The cocaine carries an American street value of $100 million (TT$640 million) and is the largest drug seizure in the history of the Norfolk Port. The drugs were destined for New York.
Authorities in Norfolk have also received key information from the Bills of Lading and other documents from a Trinidad shipping company which shows exactly who sent the 700 tins of orange and grapefruit juice tines filled with cocaine to Norfolk. Sources said the kilos of cocaine were filled in the 700 tins which were then sealed and packaged at a location in Laventille.
Sources said a known gang leader who recently purchased over two dozen vehicles is believed to be the mastermind behind this group of smugglers. Authorities in the US have also identified the persons, according to sources, who were supposed to take ownership of the consignment which contained the drugs.
Up to yesterday, none of the Trinidad-based suspects involved in the smuggling were interviewed by police with sources assuring that “a major breakthrough” will occur in the days to come.
Police sources yesterday said there is no evidence linking SM Jaleel with the smuggling and pointed out that the iconic Trinidad Juices labels could be easily printed to give the cocaine-filled tins the appearance of legitimate products.
Yesterday, the Ministry of Trade through its agency Export TT Ltd confirmed the shipment in question was not exported, “by our local manufacturer Trinidad Juice Company Limited and reaffirms the commitment in supporting the legitimate operations of our local manufacturers.”
Investigators believe this is not the first time cocaine in mass quantities has been exported from Trinidad to the United States in juice tins. Yesterday, local sources said apart from finding out details about who shipped the cocaine to the United States, efforts are being made to find out how the cocaine came into Trinidad in the first place, undetected.
Port Authority chairman Suresh Ganga Persad said all security and checking of containers arriving and leaving the port, is handled solely by Customs. The port handles the processing of documents for containers, he added. “Government is putting scanners at the port and the Ministry of Trade is actually handling the installation. But again, the actual users of these scanners will be Customs officers,” Persad said.
National Security Minister Gary Griffith said he is working closely with Transport Minister Stephen Cadiz to bring in state-of-the-art scanners like the ones used by US Customs to detect contraband.
Griffith added that he will ask for an audit of the TT Police Service K-9 section to see if some canines can be seconded to the Port to assist in the detection of contraband. Police sources said there are about 40 to 45 trained dogs in the K-9 Unit. Griffith said he intends to purchase sniffer dogs from the United Kingdom and USA to augment existing resources at the K-9 Unit.
Griffith refused to comment on the status of investigations into the cocaine-in-juice tin bust.
Seaboard Marine (Trinidad) Limited, the Shipping Line responsible for exporting juice products for SM Jaleel out of the Pt Lisas port, in a release, stated: “We are in complete agreement with our much valued client, SM Jaleel. Seaboard Marine re-confirms that it operates exclusively out of the port of Point Lisas and not the port of Port-of-Spain. To corroborate and reiterate what has been stated by our client, such shipments transported by Seaboard Marine vessels are not landed in Norfolk, Virginia as we do not offer service to this port.
“Additionally, Seaboard Marine does not offer an Export Consolidation Service but provides exclusively a Full Container Load Service (FCL) and as such do not handle our customer’s
cargo in any way.
“Seaboard Marine makes it abundantly clear the container in question, which the illegally shipped drugs were transported is not the belonging to or used by Seaboard Marine. Seaboard Marine has maintained an incident-free positive 23-year business relationship with SM Jaleel in getting legitimate local products into the United States in a transparent and legal manner.”
For its part, SM Jaleel in a whole page advert, reiterated its commitment to maintaining its status as the number one exporter on non-petro chemical products in Trinidad and Tobago. The ad also carried quotes from the president of the TT Manufacturers Association and the chief executive officer of Export TT, who vouched for SM Jaleel.
The advert also revealed that in December, five UK nationals were arrested and charged for narcotics offences in an incident in which a man died after ingesting a Pear D drink laced with lethal doses of cocaine. The Metropolitan Police in the UK cleared SM Jaleel of any involvement in the tainted Pear D drink. SM Jaleel also confirmed that the last shipment of its products to the US was in November, over six weeks before the cocaine bust at the Norfolk port.
(See Page 4 & 13A)