Quantity and quality

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By Indranie Deolal

The upbeat chief executive officer of the “young and growing” Guyana-based timber export company promised logs and lumber in “any quantity” and of “the best quality.”

Among the many durable tropical species he offered, only on an obscure online trade portal, were the country’s pricey purpleheart treasured for its intense hue and strength, the famous yellow-beige, darker veined fine greenheart used to support stellings and wharves, the beautifully striped wamara or ironwood, and the medium to coarse textured kabukalli with an indigenous title but also termed stinkwood for its unpleasant odour when freshly cut. Cheaper varieties like wallaba, locust, shibadan, crabwood and even tonka bean were some of the other exotic types advertised in tiny print.

Ndrangheta mafia

In early December 2018, on the other side of the globe, the Region Four (Demerara-Mahaica) based firm was publicly named at the end of a two-year international investigation into the activities of the Pelle-Vottari clan, a ruthless family grouping within the powerful Ndrangheta mafia, the richest Italian organised crime syndicate founded in the southern region of Calabria, that has become so widespread and sophisticated, it knows no borders.

Following months of careful work, involving officers from Switzerland and confidential operations in Suriname but not Guyana, Eurojust, the European Union (EU) prosecution agency tasked with a cross-border crime, announced that it had arrested about 90 individuals, from Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, accused of cocaine trafficking, money laundering, criminal association, bribery and violence.

Operation Pollino

It seized at least 4,000 kilograms (8,820 pounds) of cocaine and about €2 million (US$2.3 million) in notes during Operation Pollino, disclosing that the enormously wealthy Ndrangheta invested significantly in legitimate businesses, finance and real estate, and had infiltrated and contracted respected members of society including lawyers and accountants.

Correspondents from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) who examined the Italian police files reported that the multi-million-euro business smuggled hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from Brazil, Guyana, and Colombia into Europe.

Wood exporter front

An Italian freelance broker and clan member based in Wesseling, Germany, figured out how to safely import cocaine directly from Latin America. He simply established an import channel from Guyana, where local associates set up the wood exporter front for smuggling cocaine from the port of Georgetown to Antwerp, Belgium and Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Loads of local timber with the concealed drug were officially received by the German importer, Rigano Im-& Export GmbH, the OCCRP said.

Using the same techniques, cocaine imports from Colombia were sent in loads of charcoal from another front firm in the port of Barranquilla.

Stable Guyana channel

In 2015, the German BKA police discovered Rigano Im-& Export GmbH paid shipping agencies based in Rotterdam and Antwerp for permission to import goods. At the same time, the broker was openly sending large sums through a popular global money courier company to his associates in Guyana. Related arrests in 2015 and 2016 in Europe of two family members did not dent the mobsters’ operations here, with the OCCRP indicating “The Guyana channel remained stable throughout” and in January 2018 the broker and his Guyana associates, “who had just travelled around the Caribbean and Colombia before reaching the Netherlands, were surveilled by Dutch police during a meeting at the BLVD Café of Amstelveen.”

This week brought news of yet another embarrassing major drug seizure, this time in Hamburg, Germany, following a tip-off. The stash with an initial estimated street value of around €300 million (US$353 million), was hidden between sacks of rice from Guyana, stored in a shipping container, the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt revealed.

Drug trade thrives

German officials warned that the global drug trade continues to thrive despite temporary border closures during the coronavirus pandemic. The 1.5 tons of cocaine was among the largest seizures in the busy northern German port city, a spokesperson for the Customs Investigations Office said on Monday. Officers found 47 large packages hidden between the rice sacks and within those, a total of 1,277 small parcels with cocaine. The parcels all had various symbols on them, including a cat’s face, the Gallic rooster, and the Ampelmännchen or the red and green traffic light symbols shown on pedestrian signals in Germany. Several hundred of the packages were marked with the same logo.

“The 1.5 tons of cocaine seized may be a highly pure drug, which would be tripled in price for street sales,” the newspaper quoted the official as saying.

The container arrived in Hamburg at the end of last June on the 300-meter-long Malta-registered container ship, “CMA CGM Jean Gabriel” and was temporarily stored awaiting transfer to a cargo feeder ship headed to Poland. Authorities believe the cocaine was to be re-distributed to bulk buyers all over Europe who would then sell the drugs to street dealers.

The vessel is back in regional waters, and up to Wednesday was moored off Cartagena, Colombia, the MarineTraffic website said.

Detailed report request

With a new government, some old faces and terrible habits including a chronic failure to catch any real big fishes in the white powder business, Guyana awaits the findings of the Customs Anti-Narcotic Unit (CANU) and other officials who are investigating the Hamburg bust, with the agriculture minister Zulfikar Mustapha stating he has requested a “detailed” report from the Guyana Rice Development Board.

“I have asked the manager of GRDB to provide me with a detailed report so that I can brief the president” for “I am very concerned” since it “will affect our exports and we will have to put measures in place to avoid future (recurrence)” but “it’s very, very serious” Mustapha told a virtual press conference.

Colombia key

The EU Drug Markets Report for 2019 found that cocaine is shipped from Latin America to Europe mainly in vessels departing from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries, such as Paraguay and Peru. The importance of Venezuela, which in the past was a major departure point, seems to have declined in recent years. “Seizures made in 2017 at or en route to the port of Antwerp suggest that large, multi-tonne shipments departing from Colombian ports account for the biggest share of the cocaine entering the EU, followed by smaller, though more numerous shipments from Brazil and Ecuador.”

It added that these observations and the recent dramatic increase in cocaine production in Colombia mean that the South American state will remain a key departure point for maritime shipments of cocaine to Europe in years to come.

Increased cocaine containers

While the two main areas through which maritime and air cocaine shipments transit to Europe, remain the Caribbean, and the West African mainland and neighbouring islands, Cape Verde, Madeira and the Canaries, the increase in the movement of cocaine hidden inside maritime containers seems to be fostering the emergence of newer important transit areas such as Central America and North Africa, the report said.

Cocaine is the second most commonly consumed illicit drug in the EU, behind marijuana. The estimated minimum retail value of the cocaine market was €9.1 billion in 2017. Surveys estimate that about four million adults in the EU have used cocaine in the past year. However, seizures by the grouping are also at record levels, reaching 104 000, amounting to 140 tonnes in 2017. Data shows that cocaine seized at the wholesale level is of high purity, often above 85 percent.

Some of the criminals use the so-called “rip-off method” where legitimate shipments are exploited by traffickers, as may have happened to the Guyana rice cargo in Hamburg.

* ID wonders whatever became of the findings from the earlier probes of the cocaine in Guyana-rice shipments discovered in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

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