BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
Jamaica Observer, Sunday, July 29, 2018
Commissioner of Customs, Velma Ricketts Walker, emphasises the importance of State agencies working together to stamp out corruption at the island’s ports.
Commissioner of Customs, Velma Ricketts Walker emphasises the importance of State agencies working together to stamp out corruption at the island’s ports.
Commissioner of Customs Velma Ricketts Walker says that all agencies of the State involved in customs administration and border protection must continue to close ranks to stamp out corruption, as this should not only be seen as a customs issue but a national imperative.
“Criminals work together, so we have to ensure that we are a step ahead of them and collaborate accordingly to prevent these things. While there must be accountability, the blame game sometimes doesn't help — sometimes it worsens the situation, and that is why our approach at Customs is to work with and together with the other entities to get it right,” the chief executive officer stated in a Jamaica Observer interview on the ramping up of mechanisms at the Jamaica Customs Agency to tighten internal control, border protection, and ultimately help bolster national security.
Ricketts Walker said that while Customs often bears the brunt of accusations about corruption or misconduct, the public must become cognisant of the fact that keeping the ports secure is the responsibility of multiple other agencies, not just Customs.
She pointed to the container of counterfeit cigarettes valued at more than $400 million, which the police seized at a house in St James in mid-June, as an example of a breach for which the blame was laid squarely at the feet of Customs. “The cigarette container that left the port was a trans-shipment container. That container had no business on the road. It's a container that came from X country and should find itself in another country. The fact that it left tells us that there is indeed weaknesses within the system… which we have already identified and flagged,” she said.
“Port-wise (internal collusion) is a very difficult thing to deal with because it's about people. You're unable to know who are the persons involved. While Customs ensures that there is a certain level of vetting, we have to also ensure that the other areas that operate on the port are mandated to do such vetting of their staff as well, and that that vetting is ongoing,” she said.
The Customs commissioner added that the agency also has to ensure that the technology other stakeholders use, is also reliable to offer a certain level of assurance as well.
“We have found ourselves in a position where we are the entity being blamed, (and) I do understand that because when persons go to the port or the point of clearance their last interface most times is with Customs, so we become that face. We have to ensure that since we are the ones being blamed that we play an even greater role in ensuring that the security apparatus is within the port system and the all other warehouses that we operate. That is one of the things that we have been working on, to ensure that partnership and coordination is there and even go beyond that and be enforcers to ensure that things are done the right and proper way to prevent these things from happening,” Ricketts Walker outlined.
Director of Cargo Imaging,Kingsley Henry made the point also that along with its law enforcement partners, Customs has made significant strides in detecting illegal or corrupt activities. “One thing we can tell you is that our systems work and had it not been, for example, the policy of 100 per cent scanning, we can confidently say that our situation in terms of illicit items entering the country would be far greater,” he stated.
At the same time, he noted that the port environment is not perfect. “What happens within the large space of the port with all the different players (is) there is the issue of collusion. Corruption isn't a customs issue, it is a national issue that we have so all the players on the ports and the port environment would be subjected to the same influences that our officers would be subjected to. So people in organised crime, for example, would be able to find their way around and through the mechanisms that you have,” he elaborated.
Meanwhile, he said there is now a policy of 100 per cent scanning of domestic import and export containers. However, he said that it is still not logistically possible to scan trans-shipment containers. “If you take for example Kingston Freeport Terminal the trans-shipment volumes may be anywhere between 1.5 and 2.5 million per year, so what we have to rely on is intelligence coming from Customs administration and other law enforcement agencies,” he explained, adding that the agency is developing a project to acquire the most modern scanning technology.
Director of Internal Affairs at the agency, Tameka Goulbourne stressed also that staff are being sensitised about corruption, and the consequences, on an ongoing basis. She said the feedback has been positive and that in fact with a better understanding of what constitutes corruption, more staff have been reporting misconduct.
At the same time, Ricketts Walker made clear that under its anti-corruption strategy, Customs will be coming for corrupt individuals.
She argued that while the agency is often lambasted about corruption, and has taken significant steps to mitigate corruption, those who seek to bribe agents of the State must also be held accountable. “We do not want a Jamaica where persons think it is an easy thing to come and make any advance to corrupt our officers. If that is found out, then there also will be a mechanism to highlight that to Jamaica — it doesn't matter who that individual is,” she said.