CUSTOMS UNDER FIRE – JSC puts gun entry through legal ports in its sights

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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WITH most of this year’s 555 murders executed by illegal firearms, the Customs and Excise Division was grilled over the influx of these weapons mostly via lawful ports of entry, at a sitting of Parliament’s Joint Select Committee (JSC) on National Security on Wednesday.

The JSC heard of the division’s ongoing constraints that had led to just 3,998 shipping containers being inspected out of 23,000 imported into TT in January-August.

An alarmed acting Commissioner of Police Mc Donald Jacob said 116 sub-machine-gun guns and rifles were among the 626 firearms seized by the police this year

Replying to a question by JSC member Randall Mitchell, Jacob lamented, “It takes a lot of time and energy to mop up all these guns. It takes a tremendous amount of effort because as you said, 87 per cent of murders, the tool is firearms.

“I don’t feel good about it at all.”

JSC member Paul Richards cited the number of illegal firearms seized by the police, figures totalling 28,000 guns from 2017-2022, worth $350 million.

These were 8,154 firearms seized in 2017-2018 worth $100 million, 9,389 seized in 2019/2020 worth $119 million, and 11,043 seized in 2021/2022 worth $144 million.

Richards said, “I think this issue of illegal guns coming through legal ports is a crisis, because of the havoc one high-powered weapon can have on law-abiding citizens including children.”

Jacob said the police found that global courier service FedEx had been used to import illegal firearms.

“We have a whole list of different locations in relation to the FedEx where it has been breached in relation to the courier service. There are some other minor ones but the main one we have identified is FedEx.”

However he said that most illegal firearms come into TT through official ports of entry and come from the US, unlike the belief held by the police until recently that weapons mainly came from Venezuela by small boats on lonely beaches at night.

“Most firearms are coming through legal ports of entry.”

He said the police have found firearms being imported from Baltimore, Georgia and Texas.

“It is only about five per cent from Venezuela. That was identified in the last two years. That’s when the focus started to be on the Customs.”

Jacob urged a focus on gathering intelligence so as to prosecute any facilitators of the entry of illegal guns through legal ports.

Mitchell asked if customs officers were affected by gun crime, as there were consequences to allowing guns to pass and to any ineffective deployment of the division’s resources.

Acting deputy comptroller Yasmin Harris replied, “Every member of Customs and Excise is affected directly and indirectly. We have hard-working officers.”

She denied any lack of will among officers, but blamed an absence of tools and mechanisms.

Regarding lawful firearms, Jacob cited 124,000 requests “on paper” in the past three years to import firearms, with Customs and Excise data so far showing 17,000 had entered the country.

The JSC examined how illegal guns were ending up in TT.

Replying to JSC member Jayanti Lutchmedial, Jacob said the Merida Agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada had caused transnational criminals to shift operations to the Caribbean.

Comptroller Vidyah Marcial said the division had a human resource challenge of depleted numbers of trained staff.

She said the division had only 2-3 people available to do maritime interdiction, compared to 6-8 required. “I can’t sent 2-3 out to sea. It’s too risky.”

Harris said container scanners donated by the US were no longer functional. “Mobile scanners were down since last year.”

Marcial said money had been allocated to buy new scanners, with the division then having sent a request for proposals (RFP) to the Central Tenders Board. She said scanners must meet certain specs including being OSH-compliant.

In addition to scanners operational at the Piarco Airport baggage room, she cited scanners working at Swissport (two scanners), AVL (two scanners) and Shed Ten (one scanner.)

JSC member Nigel de Freitas said a JSC in 2015 had heard of scanner problems, and said if scanners were down now, donors would not donate any more scanners.

Marcial said the scanners were maintained by the manufacturers not the division, and the devices had a certain lifespan. De Freitas lamented that after the JSC had kicked up a fuss in 2018, he was now hearing the scanners were obsolete, even as guns entered TT by legal ports.

Richards asked if the division had known beforehand when the scanners were due for replacement.

Marcial said there was a procurement procedure but agreed the replacement should have been done in a more timely manner.

While she said poor maintenance had affected their lifespan, Richards said the division should have anticipated that.

In reply to De Freitas, Marcial said physical searches were also done, based on a risk assessment of the containers.

JSC chairman Keith Scotland asked about the division’s staffing to conduct this.

Marcial replied the division had three examination officers to staff 14 bays in the container examination station at the port of Port of Spain. She said, “Our efficiency is compromised.”

Lutchmedial asked how many scanners the division sought to buy in its RFP. Marcial said one scanner costs US$1 million, so the division could buy four.

Mitchell anticipated an 8-12 month RFP process to get new scanners and asked if the situation could be described as “gross negligence.”

Marcial, in reply, cited a 2008 recommendation for a TT Revenue Authority, which would incorporate the division, which she lamented had since “been in a sort of limbo.”

She said, “We suffered staff attrition where staff was not replaced. From 2008-2022 the Customs and Excise suffered tremendously. The division can only make recommendations.”

JSC member Dr Roodal Moonilal asked about any corrupt customs officers. Marcial said the division was co-operating with a US advisor to set up an internal affairs unit, hopefully by next year.

Richards alleged poor security at the Caricom Jetty. Port Authority chairman Lyle Alexander in reply cited improved CCTV cameras and Marcial cited approved funding for a gate to restrict vehicular access.