awaiting trial in the US: Neil Jason Merritt
TWO Trinidad and Tobago nationals are behind bars in Florida, USA, on charges of intention to distribute cocaine after the United States-based Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cracked what it says is a drug- and money-laundering ring with ties to a Trinidadian contractor.
Sources in Trinidad and Tobago intelligence agencies and customs officials have confirmed the FBI’s drug seizure is linked to the US$2 million found concealed in plyboard shipped to this country last month.
Neil Jason Merritt of Santa Cruz and Beon “Bobby” Phillip of Petit Valley were on board a yacht called Buff in the Caribbean Sea bound for Florida, allegedly with an estimated 150 kilogrammes of cocaine.
The drugs had an estimated street value of US$5 million (about TT$34 million).
On July 1, US Coast Guard and Navy officers intercepted the yacht and arrested Merritt and Phillip.
A third Trinidadian who was loading the cocaine into a dinghy has been co-operating with the FBI.
US law enforcement called the sting “Operation Unified Resolve” following a two-week investigation.
Public information officer for the FBI’s Tampa, Florida division, Andrea Aprea, responded to e-mails from the Express last week confirming the arrests, saying Merritt and Phillip were “arrested on July 1, 2016 aboard a sailing vessel in the Eastern Caribbean. They were indicted July 12 in the US District Court Middle District of Florida on two counts of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. They are currently being held at the Pinellas County Jail.”
They are awaiting trial.
They face between 15 to 25 years in jail under Florida State law if found guilty.
Asked further for information about the drug seizure, Aprea indicated only: “It is an ongoing investigation.”
She said she was barred from divulging further information.
The Express, however, understands US authorities are seeking assistance from local law enforcement as part of a “wider investigation”.
Link to US$2m in plyboard
Local law enforcement told the Express they had information which suggested the US drug seizure in July was “deeply connected” to the US$2 million in currency stuffed in a shipment of plywood uncovered at the Pt Lisas Port last month.
Intelligence sources said the money was sent here for a contractor in northeast Trinidad, whom they allege has customs officials, police officers, criminal figures and other businessmen on his payroll.
Intelligence sources said the local contractor maintains close ties to a government official and previously sought business advice from him.
Sources said Merritt and Phillip set sail aboard the yacht in late June, allegedly to deliver the cocaine shipment along with a third Trinidadian, whose identity the FBI did not release.
“The drugs were stored in crocus bags which they had taken photographs of and sent back to the contractor and other people who assisted in the operation here,” one source told the Express.
The US Coast Guard also photographed the drug stash upon seizure and later tagged the evidence in garbage bags.
Sources say the local contractor, who has drug connections in the US Virgin islands and a cellphone number there, had help from a relative in the US to pay $1 million to ensure the vessel sailed undetected into US waters.
The plan, sources said, was that once the cocaine got to Florida, the contractor’s relative would arrange the sale of the illegal product.
One intelligence source told the Express the contractor took the drugs on consignment from a Venezuelan drug lord whose man of business is based in South Trinidad.
The Venezuelan drug lord has been asking for payment since the shipment was confiscated in July.
The contractor has been avoiding people who come to his office and has stopped driving his luxury Range Rover vehicles.
Instead, to keep a low profile, he has been driving his girlfriend’s SUV or a borrowed vehicle from another contractor.
“People need to get the US$5 million they are owed by the contractor,” one senior intelligence police source explained.
How the money was hidden
When the US$2 million was discovered at the Point Lisas Port on November 4, port operator Plipdeco stated the money was concealed beneath plyboard inside a cargo container.
The Express was allowed to read documents which seem to contradict how the money was concealed and where it was found.
A shipping document indicated the plyboard arrived aboard a foreign vessel and was on a flatbed trailer—a piece of equipment with no sides or roof.
The shipment, according to the document, was destined for a fictitious company with a name that bears a close resemblance to a hardware store chain in Trinidad.
The document had the name of a road in South Trinidad which does not exist, as well as a fake telephone number.
The Express contacted the owner of the hardware company who confirmed he had been contacted by his shipping agents about the US$2 million find.
He said: “I told them that (the fictitious company’s name) is not part of my company and my company is registered (by another name).”
He said as far as he could determine, “the company was a fake and someone was using it as a front to conduct illegal business”.
So how did drug smugglers conceal the US currency? And who was the money destined for?
A customs source close to the investigation told the Express: “What they did was they cut out holes in the middle of several of the plywood sheets and placed those sheets in the middle of the stack. A safe with the money was then dropped into the hole and then covered with several other sheets of plywood to conceal it.”
The origin of the money, the source told the Express, was the US Virgin Islands.
Three port workers who spoke to the Express on condition of strict anonymity claimed the day before the shipment arrived, some of them received phone calls to stay away from work the next day.
Law enforcement sources said the money was to be transported to Venezuela as part payment to the drug lord for the cocaine shipment intercepted by US authorities.
But an informant familiar with the arrangements of the local contractor and his cohorts “might have ratted him out after he had been cut from the initial cocaine shipment deal”, a source pointed out.
This informant previously provided transport for other drug shipments to North America and the Caribbean which the local contractor organised using his business as a cover, sources said.