Despite the surging homicide rate inching towards 400, the majority of killings being gun related, and the staggering presence of approximately 12,000 illegal firearms in this country, the cargo and container scanners at the ports of Port-of-Spain and Point Lisas are obsolete or non-functional, making the detection of illegal weapons and other goods entering the country even more difficult.
Acting Comptroller at Customs and Excise Division Vidya Marcial, responding exclusively to queries from the Sunday Guardian, revealed the division’s issues with the scanners last Tuesday.
“The scanners are obsolete. Those scanners were a donation from the United States Government. The mobile scanners are not functioning. The fixed scanner in Port-of-Spain is functioning,” Marcial admitted in a frank interview. She is the first Comptroller at the Customs and Excise Division for quite some time that spoke directly to the media on this very troubling issue that has plagued the country’s ports for several years.
“I sent out a request to the Permanent Secretary (PS) and Ministry of Finance. But remember, we don’t have people in Trinidad who can provide that, so it has to be outsourced, and that will be a little tricky because they have to get all the specs,” Marcial said.
“The specs have to be right and it has to be for what we want it for. So we’re working on that. We did get some help from a US adviser. There’s a US adviser who is attached to the comptroller and they assisted us in putting together something.”
Vidya Marcial, Acting Comptroller of Customs and Excise Division.
EMBASSY OF THE REPUBLIC OF KOREA
Two separate senior customs sources, who spoke anonymously, confirmed that the Port of Port-of-Spain only has access to one fixed scanner, while the mobile scanners and fixed scanner at the Point Lisas Port are not operational.
“The mobile scanners are old and the contract to repair them with Massy is very costly, given the age and frequency of downtime after it’s repaired. The cost does not make economic sense. These mobile scanners were donated to Trinidad by the USA quite a while now, so the software has become obsolete,” one of the sources said.
There is also a highly organised (illegal) system within the port involving workers who allow illegal items to pass through and enter the country, the source revealed.
“Lots of barrels are stolen from shed ten from the Port of Port-of-Spain. When the containers are stuffed, the workers know exactly where to place the barrels of interest because they are expecting these and they take them out of the port. That’s a highly organised (illegal) system within the port.”
The sources said that with the constant and efficient use of scanners, officers could easily distinguish between different commodities in a container.
As an example, they said the scanners would be able to identify a bicycle in a 40-foot container.
In its absence, it makes it significantly easier for illegal weapons and contraband to pass unnoticed in containers.
The Sunday Guardian discovered that the perennial problems facing the Customs and Excise Division do not end there.
Other challenges make the work of the Customs and Excise Division onerous. In addition to technological shortcomings, the division is facing manpower issues.
At present, the division is understaffed by 40 per cent.
“We have 110 vacancies. I have asked for at least 100 new recruits…It’s still around that number (60 per cent filled),” the Acting Comptroller said.
“What happened is…I had pursued that (issue) with Finance and PS, and they advertised the posts. Candidates were shortlisted. They had interviews. They had exams. So, with effect from June/July, we started to receive officers. To date, we’ve received about 30 new officers/recruits.”
The non-functional and obsolete scanners, the illegal system involving some workers allowing contrabands, illegal guns and ammunition to pass, and the grave shortage of officers are clearly putting a strain on the Division’s ability to effectively carry out its job.
Approximately 87 per cent of murders in Trinidad and Tobago are firearm-related, according to Trinidad and Tobago Police Service statistics.
At a PNM Public Meeting in Belmont last Tuesday, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds said the country clearly has a problem with guns.
“The SSA did a survey and estimated that there were 12,000 illegal weapons in Trinidad and Tobago, and from the way it looks, it might very well be more,” he said.
He sought to assure those in attendance that the Government has taken several steps to attempt to prevent the entrance and movement of illegal firearms into and around Trinidad and Tobago.
This reporter contacted Minister in the Ministry of Finance Brian Manning and the ministry’s communications team on the matter involving the scanners and the shortage of officers but there was no response up to late yesterday.
‘Million-dollar investment in scanners was to provide added security’
The United States Customs and Border Protection donated four mobile vehicles and cargo inspection system (VACIS) scanners to the T&T Government in April 2018.
Two scanners were assigned to the Port of Point Portin, while the other two were expected to be placed at the Port of Port-of-Spain.
It is uncertain if they were.
At the unveiling ceremony of the scanners at the Port of Point Lisas on April 18, 2018, the event’s feature speaker, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said, “The Government’s investment in this initiative is indicative of its deep commitment to border security and trade facilitation. These mobile scanners can be used at other locations for special operations. They will serve as an effective tool in assisting the Government in providing added security to the citizens of T&T.
“Customs and Excise officers and guards have been trained in operating these mobile scanners and stand ready to carry out these functions efficiently and effectively.”
Customs and Excise Divison falls under the purview of the Ministry of Finance.
The Acting Comptroller at the time, Kathy-Ann Matthews also spoke highly of their proposed impact saying that “The Customs and Excise Division views the implementation of these scanners as critical and indeed timely as we have seen the increase of illegal activity and the importation of contraband via the use of containers. The mobile scanners will be very effective in detecting contraband intended for import, export or transport.”
During his speech, Imbert lamented that violent crime, driven by illegal weapons and drugs, was affecting citizens and businesses.
He revealed that the company that manufactured the scanners, Leidos Corporation, was contacted to oversee installation, maintenance, and technical support.
According to Imbert, the initial training and maintenance operations cost $16.6 million (TT), while a three-year maintenance and training contract cost another $9.9 million (TT).
That initial contract expired on October 1, 2020.
According to a customs source, the maintenance contract was given to Massy.
While there are no statistics readily available for the number of imports at the Port of Point Fortin for the year so far, as of August 8, 2002, there were 38,693 imports at the Port of Port-of-Spain, according to the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago’s website.
Export containers also not being examined
The senior customs and excise division source, who spoke anonymously, said that the vast majority of export containers are also not being examined by officers.
They said there are a few large companies (names called) that have their export containers examined by officers, while others are part of a Voluntary Compliance Program (VCP) according to a document that the Sunday Guardian obtained.
“Just look at the scrap metal compounds on the highway, for example. Every day you pass they are packing those, with no officers present,” the senior Customs and Excise Division source said.
With the Government banning the export of scrap metal exports on August 12 for six months (until February 23, 2023), this means that scrap iron could still be leaving the country illegally. The temporary scrap iron ban has also triggered fiery protests across the country by scrap iron dealers who also staged a motorcade from San Fernando to Port-of-Spain last Wednesday, pleading with the Government to reverse their decision.
In the last two years, but especially within the last nine months, the infrastructure of the state’s utility companies has been vandalised by copper and metal thieves.
According to Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales, the illegal trade cost the state’s utility companies approximately $25 million in the last two years.
Last week, Sunday Guardian reported exclusively that the illegal copper and metal export trade in Trinidad and Tobago is part of an international crime operation with links to Venezuela and China.
Criminologist Dr Daurius Figueira said, according to his contacts, those involved in the trade include local and Venezuelan gangs, the Chinese mafia, and well-resourced businesses that are exporting the illegal product mainly to China.
Dr Figueira said the trade took off in Venezuela in 2017, but the Government began clamping down on the trade because of its impact on state infrastructure.
He said the trade spread from Venezuela into Trinidad in the last two years. His contacts on the ground informed him that the material is coming into T&T to get exported illegally to China.
China is the world’s largest consumer of refined copper. His claims about the local trade’s connection to Venezuelan and Chinese criminal organisations were supported by sources close to the trade.
The sources, who spoke anonymously out of concern for their safety, told the Sunday Guardian that the local trade is being driven by an ‘underworld figure with links to people in South America’.
They said that the US multi-million dollar trade involves large amounts of copper and other metals being brought across from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago.
The metals, according to the sources, are then picked up in Carenage, Chaguaramas, and Cedros.
They are then stored and processed in secret locations in many areas, including Point Fortin, Debe and Diego Martin, before being shipped in containers to China.
Two weeks ago, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds said that since 2020, 218 people have been arrested in relation to the theft of copper and metals.
In 2020, he said, there were 58 reports of theft with 30 people arrested, while in 2021, there were 87 reports of theft, with 52 arrests.
However, the minister said the number of reports and arrests increased significantly between January and August 2022, with 162 reports of theft and 136 arrests.
PSA–Out 33,000 positions on 15,000 hired
According to the Presidential Designate of the Public Services Association Leroy Baptiste–the majority union representing Customs and Excise Division officers–the division is working at half its capacity and has been doing so for some time.
In fact, he claimed that the entire public service is undermanned.
Out of 33,000 available positions in the public service, the service is being manned by 15,000 public servants, he claimed.
Baptiste claimed the civil service department agencies and services are being deliberately starved of resources.
“The general act of governance is that they are not filling vacancies within the public service, and when there’s a commensurate drop in the levels of service, they then demonise the service, as though the service is inefficient wherever you go,” Baptiste said.
“The end result is that you have the service undermanned by virtue of the literal sabotaging of the civil service by the Government. And you know what they do? They spread the notion of an inefficient public service as a pretext to engage in restructuring exercises, which again, moves away the insulation from political interference in these authorities, whether it’s the Trinidad and Tobago Revenue Authority(TTRA), the proposed Licensing Authority, a whole bunch of things they want to bring about.”
According to Baptiste, the Government intends to bring an end to the civil service by removing permanent jobs and hiring people on contracts.
“You have no protection whatsoever and then the politician turned king; It’s at his wish and command. You either work or you’re unemployed. I think that’s the sad state of affairs here,” he said.
“The next thing they do when they are starving for manpower, they also don’t engage in the necessary investment in things like technology and best practice to improve the level of service.
“So you create this environment where you have the population continuously criticizing the public officers as though the public officer is just inefficient. They came from Mars nah (sic), this bunch of inefficient people just running the country, and therefore, you need to get rid of them.”
PM: Despite challenges Govt did not fire a single public servant
At a PNM Public Meeting in Belmont on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said the Government’s priority was to preserve as many jobs as possible.
He said despite many challenges the Government did not fire a single public servant during the height of the pandemic.
“Our fight was to be in a position to pay them every month and I dare say, thank God, we have been able to do so. And we did that by extracting more revenue from the source of our revenue. And we also said we won’t go to the IMF. If you qualify to borrow, they will lend you the money, but they will lay down some terms and conditions for that money. And the first term they will lay down for Trinidad and Tobago will be, cut your public service,” the Prime Minister said.
“So every public servant who want to run up and down behind marchers, and close down country and shut down country, the biggest risk that you face is a situation where the Government cannot pay its bills and will have to go the lender as a last resort, and they will say here’s $300 million but you have to cut the public service by 20 per cent, 30 per cent, 40 per cent.”
The Prime Minister said he understood the calls from public servants for salary increases, but added that any decision taken by the Government must be in the country’s best interest.
The Government is in salary negotiations with unions representing public sector workers for the period 2014 to 2019.
The Government has offered a four per cent increase.