AFTER ALMOST a month anchored in TT waters, the 17-member crew of a Panamanian registered oil and chemical tanker suspected to be transporting a significant quantity of cocaine will likely face further investigation as the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stands ready to assist local officers.
A multi-agency team lead by the Transnational Organised Crime Unit (TOCU) of the Ministry of National Security boarded the vessel on September 2 and have conducted a detailed search of the vessel over several days.
Some 14 members of the crew were infected by covid19 during the search and remain confined to the vessel even though the thorough searches did not yield any illegal drugs.
The matter now threatens TT diplomatic relations with Panama and local authorities as local law enforcement authorities acted on a tip off from US authorities to search the vessel, according to a senior law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media. Panama authorities are now considering the continued detention of the vessel as an illegal seizure by TT.
The daily rental rate is US$11,700.
Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy Kendenard Raymond in response to questions from Newsday regarding the detention and search of the Star Balboa said in an e-mail response on Sunday said,
“The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is aware of the vessel and is willing to assist host nation law enforcement as needed during this ongoing investigation. We refer you to the TT government for any further details.”
Questions sent to National Security Minister Stuart Young and Captain Don Polo of the Coast Guard were not acknowledged.
The continued detention of the crew, which comprises nationals of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Spain, Argentina, Panama, Peru and Colombia have made headline news in Panama as the crew, which have been out at sea for over three months, begs to go home.
The vessel arrived in TT in early September to dispose of garbage and replenish its water and provisions but was arrested by a local shipping agent for an outstanding bill of $80,000.
After the debt was paid, agents from the TOCU, Coast Guard, Customs, Immigration, the Special Intelligence Unit and even prison officers boarded to search the vessel for dangerous drugs.
Lawyers for the owners of the vessel and crew said no warrant was shown until days after the search began and electronic devices of the crew have been seized so they cannot contact their family.
Several members of the search party have also contracted covid19 and one of the lawyers tested positive.
The legal team includes Sophia Chote SC, Peter Carter, Nyree Alfonso and Asif Hosein-Shah.
A constitutional motion challenging the prolonged detention of the crew was dismissed by Justice Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell on September 17 as well as an injunction seeking to prevent further violations of the crew’s rights.
Since then, no further searches have been carried out but on Friday the Coast Guard ordered the captain and crew to stay anchored and threatened to use lethal force if they disobeyed.