JSC calls for set up of Border Protection and Security Agency

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JSC calls for set up of Border Protection and Security Agency

A Joint Select Committee (JSC) of Parliament has recommended that government remove all oversight from the Customs and Excise Division, in light of the flow of illegal guns and ammunition and create a Border Protection and Security Agency.

The recommendations came via a 164-page report laid in the House of Representatives on Friday.

The Committee, chaired by Port-of-Spain South MP Keith Scotland, inquired into the safety, security and protection of citizens with specific reference to the factors that contribute to the prevalence of illegal firearms and gun violence in T&T.

The report highlighted the low success rate Customs and the Coast Guard have had in stemming the flow of illegal firearms into the country. It also pinpointed the Police Service’s (TTPS) failure to put a significant dent in the circulation of illegal items across the country.

The JSC recommended the creation of a Border Protection and Security Agency (BPSA) to separate the border security function from the Customs and Excise Division and the institutional strengthening of the TTPS.

The report said the firearms industry in T&T was “lucrative”, noting a single firearm went for an average of TT$17,429 on the black market.

The JSC focused on ports of entry which Customs and the Coast Guard should be monitoring. It said in 2021 and 2022, the Coast Guard did not seize a single weapon or ammunition.

The JSC said according to submissions from the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), there are 123 illegal ports in T&T, of which 66 facilitate the entry or exit of illegal firearms and ammunition, while there are nine legal ports of entry.

However, the JSC said, “Traffickers moving arms by freight use different techniques for concealing their identity and illicit cargo. This includes adopting fictitious or intermediary addresses, fake paperwork like misidentifying the arms as objects of similar shape and density (metal tools, engine parts, etc.), as well as undervaluing the goods,” the report said.

“Certainly, traffickers are also aided by corrupt personnel who facilitate activities. According to the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) assessment, corrupt law enforcement personnel have been uncovered at all law enforcement organisations.”

“Staffing numbers of 352 personnel out of an antiquated mandate of 700 is inadequate and requires immediate action to strengthen the human resource capacity of the Division,” the report said.

“In real words, a shortage of more than 50% of personnel needed to fulfil its mandate with satisfaction is more a staffing crisis.”

“In 2021 and 2022, no single firearm was discovered during the containers’ scanning process. Indeed, the seven discoveries of firearms in 2021 and 2022 were discovered through the physical examination of cargo. The latest was discovered on the October 14, 2022, at the Medway Transit Shed. In 2022 only, firearms were discovered on five occasions, all of them in bonded warehouses in Port-of-Spain or Point Lisas,” it said.

The JSC hopes the creation of the BPSA under the Ministry of National Security (MNS), will allow Customs to focus on revenue collection, the application of trade policy and collecting and disseminating accurate trade-related data.

The BPSA, meanwhile, will thus conduct specialised screening, examine and inspect received barrels, containers, boxes, et cetera, for illicit cargo; intercept illicit items and/or people at any national location upon intelligence received from the SSA, TTCG or other related entity; and collaborate with relevant law enforcement agencies on the development of strategies geared towards the interception, retrieval and destruction of contraband, and the charging and arrest of persons involved.

It suggests a commissioner, who will report to the Minister of National Security, head the unit.

Customs has also been asked to undertake a fierce recruitment drive to meet its demands, beginning with 100 officers per year for at least the next five years.