Tuesday, February 05, 2008

President pleases his friend Buddy Shivraj

Fuelling crime

While the two-and-a-half-year trial of Mr Omprakash 'Buddy' Shivraj plodded on ever so ponderously before magistrate Priya Sewnarine-Beharry at the Providence court, it was surprising to learn that the chief witness, Mr Joseph O'Lall, had been removed from his post as chief executive officer of the Guyana Energy Agency with effect from December 31 2007.

Mr O'Lall had been instrumental in bringing charges against Mr Shivraj for storing a quantity of petroleum on his property on the East Bank Demerara in September 2005 without a licence issued by the Guyana Energy Agency. Mr Anil Nandlall was appointed special prosecutor and Mr O'Lall's evidence, expertise and experience were seen as essential in a crucial case concerning contraband commerce in this country. Would Mr O'Lall's sudden dismissal affect the outcome?

The administration has consistently expressed its intention to eradicate the pernicious practice of smuggling. As far back as September 2003, the cabinet had commissioned an inquiry into fuel smuggling. At that time, President Bharrat Jagdeo announced that existing laws were adequate to deal with the crime and no new legislation would be necessary. He did say, however, that "the problems we had recently had nothing to do with law. You had a bunch of corrupt peopleĆ¢€¦and, hopefully, we can find those people involved and take action against them." According to the president, stronger policing of illegal activities was needed to solve the problem of fuel smuggling which cost the state about $6 billion annually in revenue.

The Guyana Energy Agency, strangely, has hardly been made stronger by being given the human and material resources to enforce the law. Staffed with fewer than a dozen underpaid inspectors most of whom work for paltry wages, and equipped with only three SUVs and not a single maritime vessel for the entire country, is it any wonder that the GEA has found itself incapable of uprooting fuel smuggling?

Mr O'Lall had told this newspaper in an earlier interview that fuel smuggling was taking place across the country especially in the mining areas and that "almost every day" officers attached to the GEA's enforcement section were called to respond to fresh cases. He revealed that fuel smuggling was rampant in the hinterland ? mostly in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni Region ? where the mining sector was the largest consumer of contraband fuel. "They using it [sic] like there is no tomorrow," Mr O'Lall had said at that time.

In the absence of effective enforcement by the Guyana Revenue Authority's Customs and Trade Administration; the Guyana Defence Force's Coast Guard; the Guyana Police Force and the Guyana Energy Agency itself ? all of which have been starved of sufficient staff and surveillance, maritime and aviation resources ? the illegal importation of fuel has continued undiminished. Contraband fuel has now seeped into the engineering, construction and fishing industries although it has not yet come into common circulation in commercial vehicles and motorcars.

One crime tends to cause another, especially in this booming billion-dollar business. Evidence was once unearthed that the marker used to ensure that legally shipped fuel could be tested accurately had been sold by GEA staffers to smugglers who would mark their fuel so as to avoid detection and prosecution. Indeed, it is too easy for rich crooks to prey on poorly-paid public servants.

Bought cheaply from towns such as San Felix on the Orinoco River in Venezuela, fuel is brought to Guyana in modified fishing trawlers and transferred to smaller vessels in the numerous creeks and inlets along the Pomeroon and Essequibo Rivers ? chiefly Aliki, Lanaballi and Morasi. It is then taken to buyers in the mining and fishing industries. The state hardly interferes in this common commerce although the sources, routes, carriers, and customers are no secret.

Fuel smuggling will not cease of its own accord. It continues to be highly profitable because of the low cost of the commodity in Venezuela and the low level of official enforcement in Guyana. The greater danger to the state, however, is not merely the loss of revenue; it is the opening of the floodgates for other more serious crimes. If criminals can smuggle such huge volumes of illegal fuel across international borders almost continuously to keep certain industries running, what is there to prevent them from trafficking in narcotics, another contraband commodity, that brings in billions more dollars?

While managing to avoid effectively equipping enforcement agencies such as the GEA, GRA, GDF and GPF to enable them to stop smuggling, the administration has contrived to establish the impotent Fuel and Goods Smuggling Task Force within the Ministry of Home Affairs under a police pensioner.

In these circumstances, is it not to be expected that fuel smuggling and the crimes they foster will continue to flourish?

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