The solution for Jamaican ports’ security problems: Change the scanners; consolidate security duties

Published 7 December 2009

Security in Jamaica’s ports has suffered as a result of antiquated scanning equipment and the fragmentation of security responsibilities; the director of customs want to make changes on both fronts

In Jamaica, too, they are grappling with the issue of port security, especially as outdated and inefficient scanners and a hodgepodge security system are leaving big holes at Jamaica’s ports and allowing contraband, including guns, to slip through.

The Jamaica Gleaner’s Arthur Hall writes that since last year, the police have pointed to the drugs-for-guns trade between Jamaica and Haiti and blamed this for the continuous flow of illegal firearms into the island, while arguing that the weapons are taken in through the vast unguarded coastline.

The evidence shows, though, that the traditional source of guns — the United States — remains up and running, with the firearms making their way through the established ports. “Of the 524 guns we have seized since the start of the year, the vast majority are brand new, and not the used ones that the criminals get in Haiti,” a senior cop told the Sunday Gleaner. “It is clear that the guns are coming through the ports and that is where we need to tighten,” the cop added, while requesting that his name be withheld.

That is a charge which is not being challenged by Director of Customs Danville Walker, even though it could be used as a criticism of his leadership of the department which is responsible for checking what is coming into the island. “I agree that the guns are coming through the ports but you have to give Customs the tools to carry out the job,” Walker told a Gleaner Editors’ Forum last Friday. Among the tools wanted by Walker are proper scanners to check for contraband.

I believe that most of the scanners at the Port of Kingston are outdated. Yes, they work, but we need to invest in more penetrative scanners. The scanners we have now can be replaced for much less than they were purchased for, and I don’t even now if you could give away for free the ones we have now,” said Walker. He told the Sunday Gleaner that it would cost the government between US$500,000 and US$1 million to purchase state-of-the-art scanners.

Even with new scanners, Walker is not convinced that the holes would be plugged to stop the flow of guns. He argued that the security set-up at the ports now is inadequate and this cannot be blamed on the Customs Department. “I believe a huge mistake was made with the fragmentation of the security at the ports. The port security is run by one organization, Customs is another organization, and the scanners are operated by another organization,” said Walker. “You can’t fragment the security matrix for the ports and then ask Customs how come we never find no gun.”

He said Customs could only be held responsible when all the security agencies at the ports are under its control. “Port Community Corps, Port Security Management Corps, should be under Customs, trained by Customs, managed by Customs, tasked by Customs …. If you are not doing that, it is like you have a three-legged stool but with no seat to sit on.

Customs must deal with the scanners … because I can tell you when a customs officer is reading the scanner, we are far more likely to determine an anomaly, because we are the ones who look in the containers, we are the ones who look in the barrels, we know what we are looking at,” Walker argued.