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Commentary: Trinidad drug bust: A cautionary tale for the Caribbean
Published on February 5, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Anton Edmunds

The discovery of over US$100 million of cocaine hidden in juice cans bearing the brand name of a major Trinidadian company at the end of 2013 caused quite a stir in that country, with statements of commitment by government and the manufacturing industry association alike on a need to protect the brand name of the company and the country.

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Anton Edmunds is the head of The Edmunds Group, a boutique business and government advisory service firm that focuses on the Caribbean, and a senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). He can be contacted by email here and prior posts reviewed at the firm’s website: www.theedmundsgroup.com
While investigations continue as to exactly who was responsible for exploiting gaps in the export control process, the fundamentals are clear. Supply chain security in the Caribbean is weak and known local and regional solutions need to be applied and strengthened.

More known as an exporter of empty containers, the Caribbean region has consistently failed to develop a framework of standards that it needs, to protect itself from being used as a conduit for contraband bound for the shores of its largest trading partners. Drug busts in Europe and Canada shed light on the weakness of the current piecemeal efforts to address trade security and expose efforts by multilateral agencies such as the Organization of American States (OAS) as woefully inadequate.

The failure of institutions such as CARICOM and regional trade and security ministers to work towards regional standards in the supply chain security mechanism is probably the most glaring factor that has served to leave the Caribbean region exposed to those within and outside of this space committed to the traffic of illicit cargo.

In the case of Trinidad, the region’s economic, manufacturing and supposedly security hub, the concern has to be that there is a serious lack of an effective export control mechanism. The fact that US agents used knowledge of the Trinidadian port and information about recent smuggling cannot be a comforting thought to the government of that island nation.

Beyond Trinidad, however, the fact is that there is also a thriving inter-island trade in contraband well known to international law enforcement. Vessels that move between the smaller economies in the Eastern Caribbean are known to transit drugs through the ports of neighbouring islands, too often leaving the interception duties to third party countries within the regional space. Claims that port and security managers are either abdicating responsibility or worse are complicit, are getting harder and harder to ignore.

Fundamentally, the lax attitude towards supply chain security highlights a lack of understanding by governments that trade security is sacrosanct. For those who have ignored the warnings that their ports are conduits for contraband the situation is more ominous. Branded a problem port negates your trustworthiness and makes you a risky location for carriers. It ultimately exposes them to delays in entering other ports and that means money.

A weak port also brands a country as an unsafe location for other vessels including the cruise industry as the use of your port as a conduit for drugs intimates that criminal elements call your country home. It also exposes this industry to the fact that your port is porous enough to be a staging area for an act of terrorism and sullies the reputation of your government and people.

While one cannot in good conscience advocate for the awesome expense that comes with the acquiring of scanning technology, nor can one endorse the tactics of the sometimes overzealous public sector that sees efficiency as an anathema to security, there is still time for the region to act on the development of a regional standard as it relates to protecting the supply chain and to invest in some basic risk assessment tools.

From St Maarten through to Saint Lucia, and from Barbados to Trinidad and Jamaica, it is time for industry and government to recognize the holes that exist and fix them before the problem gets worse. The current hub and sub-hub and spoke system that the region depends on has to be fixed – the Caribbean cannot continue to fail the secure supply chain test. Ministers responsible for trade, ports and elements of the security apparatus can no longer be absolved of responsibility if their facilities are being breached and neither for that matter can the institutions that purport to provide solutions. This especially as we know how strategically located Caribbean countries are, and how dependent the region is on its port facilities for economic survival.
 
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