The continued detention of a Panamanian-registered oil and chemical tanker and 17-member crew, most of whom have contracted coivd19, on suspicion of drug trafficking is turning out to be a diplomatic problem for this country.
In early September, the Star Balboa arrived in TT waters to dispose of garbage and replenish their water and provisions but the vessel was arrested by local shipping agents for an outstanding bill of close to $80,000.
After the bill was settled with hours, a joint team of police, coast guard, immigration, customs and even prison officers boarded to execute a search warrant for dangerous drugs based on intelligence passed on by an international ally. Among the units involved in the operation were members of the elite Transnational Organised Crime Unit, which falls under the Ministry of National Security, Special Intelligence Unit, Customs and Excise, Immigration and even prison officers.
Between September 2 and September 13, officers searched every inch of the vessel, sending divers below and even wanted to empty the fuel tank and came up empty-handed. The vessel is anchored four miles off the coast of Chaguaramas and was ordered by local authorities to empty its ballast tanks in local waters in contravention of maritime laws.
They crew reportedly contracted covid19 from members of the search party, some of whom were photographed unmasked and in close proximity in crowded areas of the ship.
Some members of the search team have also reportedly contracted covid19 and one member of the crew legal team. And the longer the vessels remains stuck in TT, it is racking up a bill of US$11,700 a day in rental fees.
A team of lawyers representing the owners of the vessel and the crew led by Sophia Chote SC, Nyree Alfonso, Peter Carter and Asif Hosein-Shah went to court challenging the alleged breach of their clients' constitutional rights but the matter was dismissed by Justice Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell, who also refused to grant an injunction to prohibit the continued searches on September 17.
Lawyers said that they were not shown a copy of the search warrant two days after it began.
Even though the searches ended after the court action, Coast Guard on Friday ordered the crew not to leave and threatened to use lethal force if they did.
The matter has made headline news in Panama and is being reported in the major newspapers there.
One such report in La Prensa publication on Saturday stated that the crew were seeking help from the Panamanian authorities to go home.
They have been at sea since July and had their communication devices confiscated by local authorities.
Among the crew are eight Panamanians, three Venezuelans, including the captain Colombian, Peruvian, Nicaraguan and Argentine nationals. A total of 14 of them, including the captain, have contracted covid19. The captain collapsed on board and had to be taken to Caura for treatment but has returned to the vessel.
According to the La Prensa article, a spokesman for the group, through a video, said that their electronic equipment, including cell phones, was seized and they were not given the right to have a lawyer. They also ask that urgent medical assistance be offered to treat the covid19 disease and demand that the legal process be expedited.
They said while they did not oppose the investigations by local authorities, but they want it to be completed as soon as possible, because they have already been detained for 21 days.
Through social networks, the relative of one of the sailors denounced that there are “abuses by the government of Trinidad and Tobago”.
Another Panamanian MetroLibre publication, quoted Clemente Forero, president of the Panamanian Association of Naval Officers (APOM), stated that "no authority has found drugs, but they are keeping them in custody because they continue to search."
Forero said that similar situations have occurred when the alert of possible illicit shipment is given, however, the waiting time has not been that long, the report stated.
The president of Apom revealed that they are in a meeting with the directors of the association to establish a roadmap to bring a solution to their colleagues, it added.
Questions sent to National Security Minister Stuart Young, Captain Don Polo of the Coast Guard seeking comment were not acknowledged. Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith said he could not comment and referred questions to Young.