In the aftermath of massive consignments of cocaine being nabbed, the Preventive Directorate of the Customs House of the Sri Lanka Customs admitted that only five per cent of the tea exports are examined.
This is due to having to adhere to requirements pertaining to trade facilitation as otherwise delays could occur in the process.
Earlier Weekend Nation citing Deputy Director of the Customs, Parakrama Basnayake and Director of the Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention, Dr. Samantha Kumara Kithalawaarachchi reported that the export of heroin and Kerala ganja and probably cocaine too took place via established trade routes also known as green channels through and from local Ports to Europe.
A Superintendent of Customs-cum-Preventive Officer who wished to remain anonymous said that since tea could most probably be an avenue for exporting cocaine, one had to be careful in reporting it as any publicity of tea being the supposed mode of export could result in the drug traffickers changing the mode of export.
Tea exports are not scanned using scanners. Depending on the density of the tea consignment being exported, by scanning using scanners one could detect if any contraband is to be found in the consignment. The Customs does not possess scanners at present, he further added.
Most recently, a consignment of cocaine which had come hidden in containers of sugar from Brazil with a weight of over 200 kilograms and a street value of over Rs 2 billion was confiscated.
“The scope of aspects regarding the management of risk will have to be changed,” the officer said and added that while sugar coming from Brazil was not a criterion for risk previously, it would now have to be considered a risk. The examination of it has since been increased by the Customs and Police Narcotics Bureau.
Contraband is nabbed following assessments conducted by the Customs or subsequent to information received by the Customs or provided to the Police Narcotics. The officer said that tip offs including information about the consignment of cocaine hidden in a sugar consignment had not come to the Customs or the Police Narcotics. “Generally such information does come to us or the Police Narcotics, yet in this case it did not. Another mode may have been used to convey the information”, he speculated.
According to him, they had heard of the drug trafficking mafia giving information of cocaine consignments to the authorities to prevent the drug consignment from falling into the wrong hands.
“The local consumption of cocaine is less. Sugar and tea are free moving commodities. Regarding these consignments of cocaine that have been taken into custody, we have had our suspicions that cocaine might be coming along with sugar. The suspicions are also founded on the ship crews that brought these consignments in. We have received instructions to look into such a probability. Even consignments of refuse tea were caught in such a manner. One has to be vigilant. This is a whole new thing. We have to think anew and afresh. We have requested that we be provided with scanners. We also do not have sniffer dogs,” he further explained.
Meanwhile, Customs confirmed statements made by the police that consignments of cocaine had been confiscated after they were released previously by Customs officials.
Reportedly 333 kgs of cocaine were seized by the police from Peliyagoda and Biyagama recently. Police had sought court orders to stop further release of consignment by Customs. An official attached to the Customs said that such a situation had risen due to the negligence of an officer but said that no Customs official was involved in the racket.
The Tea Exporters Association explained that the Sri Lanka Tea Board possessed information regarding every tea exporter in the country. According to them if cocaine was being exported with tea, it could be a person or persons masquerading as tea exporters who engaged in such a malpractice.
All tea exporters in the country have to be registered with the Board. Criterion for proper registration must be met. There are stringent restrictions involved. The Board looks at and checks where the tea is coming from, what tea is being produced, its quantity, quality, value, who is exporting, where to, what the tea is being exported for and whether it is the same quantity that is exported that is ultimately received. There are audits conducted, issuing of export permits done and random checks conducted of the samples. All of this is strictly monitored and checked by the Board.
Details with the Board concerning tea exporters include the relevant Inland Revenue number, name of the director or directors and the address of the company and its office.
Chairman of the Association, Jayantha Karunaratne said that it is the Board, which as a separate authority is involved with the checking of tea exports more than the Customs as the Customs was not the sole authority involved in the matter.
“Sometimes cocaine may be exported without declaring it as tea” Karunaratne said.
He said that exports could be done using any commodity, especially those which were least controlled and regulated like as spices. In fact, regulations on tea exports make for expensive delays, regarding which the Association has raised concerns.
“The regulations are too much and we have complained and raised our concerns on several occasions regarding this aspect”, he added.
He said that a meeting would have to be convened with the Association, the Board and the Customs officials to discuss the matter further.
“Tea is a major export. We will definitely go into this matter and see if tea is in fact being used for this purpose. It can be those pretending to be tea exporters. This can be damaging to the entire industry and its image. Once the details are obtained, those responsible must be caught, punished and stringent punishment must be imposed and implemented to prevent its spread. Otherwise, we may not be able to survive,” Karunaratne declared.