By: Ingrid Fernandez
Recent instances of attempted drug-trafficking through Tropic Air cargo flights, have prompted the Department of Civil Aviation to screen all cargo passing through municipal airports after an investigation into the industry’s regulations by the Reporter.
The newspaper contacted the Department of Civil Aviation after police reported separate incidents of concealed marijuana passing through Tropic Air offices, in order to seek clarification on the regulations.
Initially, officials from both the Civil Aviation Department and Tropic Air declined responsibility, saying this was a matter for police. The police, however, can only be included in the process until a breach of the law has been reported,Tropic Air Manager Dennis Saunderman, adhering to the company’s customer policies, rejected any idea of responsibility for drug trafficking occurring via the airline’s services, or any consideration to implement further security measures to prevent future occurrences.
When contacted, the Department of Civil Aviation also claimed it had no jurisdiction in the matter. Lindsay Garbutt, Director of Civil Aviation, explained that the Department’s responsibility deals specifically with the regularization of screening matters such as flights, personal equipment and machinery.
The purview of the Civil Aviation Authority, he stated, is to ensure safety and is not set up to prevent criminal activity.
He declared that drug findings at any international or national airline is a matter that police alone have jurisdiction over. When drug busts occur, he explained, the authorities cooperate with the police and hand over any information necessary to facilitate the investigation.
Cargo, however, does not undergo screening at the Municipal Airstrip and the Reporter questioned this lax policy.
Garbutt suggested that in order to reduce incidents of drug trafficking via airlines, the companies themselves should implement better tracking measures mainly by registering senders and requiring specific information.
Upon researching the ‘Civil Aviation Security Act, 2007’, the Reporter found a section that shed light on the matter of who has legal responsibility
Section (16) (2) (r) and (u) clearly states:
“Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), Regulations made under this section may provide for-…”
“…the screening of hold baggage and cargo prior to being loaded onto an aircraft;”
“…the security measures to be applied to postal mail, prior to the mail being loaded onto the aircraft;”
At this point the Reporter was referred to the Chief Operations Officer (COO) Nigel Carter who said the Department of Civil Aviation is a regulatory body and not an enforcement body. According to the ‘Civil Aviation Security Act, 2007’, however, under Section (16) (2) (c) it provides:
“authority to personnel of the Concession Company, the Belize Airports Authority, the Belize Police Department, the Customs and Excise Department, the Department of Immigration and Nationality Services and any other government department to arrest persons without a warrant and to detain such persons for contravening any civil aviation security measures or laws;”
On closer inspection, Garbutt acknowledged that although the Act provides certain authority to the department, it is something that hasn’t been commonly practiced due to the number of air-drones taking flight each day and screening is mostly left to the security forces present at these locations. He also acknowledged that officials from the Department were not aware of the provisions in the Act until that moment.
He added, that after discussions with his staff there is consensus that more must be done to address issues of illicit cargo being transported through municipal airline services, as it is a matter of national security. Garbutt assured the Reporter that the Department takes the matter very seriously and will take the necessary steps to ensure greater security on municipal flights.
He further explained that while Civil Aviation regulates the industry, the Belize Airport Authority (BAA), a body they work hand-in-hand with, manages the airports and there would need to be a terminal managed by the BAA where cargo from both municipal airlines are screened at each airport.
Of course, he said, implementing such measures would take into consideration logistics, personnel and financial resources. Garbutt also indicated that he would be sitting with the Deputy Director and looking at ways in which the department can strengthen its efforts.
Garbutt said coincidentally there had been recent discussions to hire a qualified security consultant with experience in the industry to advise the Department on related matters and he expected to have that person on staff by December.
There is no time-line as to when such measures would be implemented but, Garbutt said, the conversation has started and he intends to raise the issue and collaborate with other relevant departments.
On November 13th Corozal police Special Branch and Criminal Investigation Branch found 486 grams, more than a pound, of marijuana in a Lala milk box at the Ranchito Tropic Air office. Eight days later, on November 21st, San Pedro police found 375.9 grams of marijuana in a Kellogs Corn Flakes box at the San Pedro Tropic Air cargo hold.